Fiction: My Legendary Boyfriend
By Neil Randall
We met at a house party. Wary as I was of the situation – teenage girl getting chatted up by a much older boy – I’d seen him around town before. I knew he had a bit of a reputation – trouble with the police, shoplifting, selling drugs – pretty much the holy trinity for anyone in their early twenties. Maybe that was the attraction.
“You fancy a smoke?” he asked.
“Yeah. All right. Why not?”
We went and sat in an empty bedroom upstairs. After much trial and error, both in keeping the joint alight and trying to smoke it properly, I not only got stoned for the first time, but really enjoyed it. I just couldn’t stop laughing. But more than anything, it was the first time I’d ever really been alone with a boy like this. Course, I’d had snogs and stuff with lads round mates’ houses, fumbles in darkened rooms when their parents were away for the weekend. But I don’t think I’d ever been in what you could call intimate surroundings before. ’Cause, inevitably, I s’pose, we ended up kissing, sharing these soft tender smooches. And it was all so lovely and new to me, so different from having some sweaty, panting seventeen-year-old groping roughly at your tits or trying to force his hand in between your legs.
“Hey,” he said, “you wanna do something tomorrow? Maybe meet up in town ’bout lunchtime. Hang out. You’re a top girl, Georgina. I really like your company.”
And that’s how the whole thing started between me and Will Crabtree.
Ultimately, I didn’t really know what to expect from our first date. Maybe that he’d try and get me back to his bedsit, the grotty-looking ground-floor flat I’d seen him stumbling in and out of before, for a quick shag. But that didn’t prove to be the case at all. Before I could so much as say hello, Will took my hand and whisked me off along Church Street, talking ten to the dozen, one minute sidestepping a cavalcade of pram-pushing single mums, the next, pirouetting us through one hundred and eighty degrees, doing his best to shield me from a gang of hoodies with those horrible fighting dogs straining at their leashes. All of which I found funny and endearing, ’cause he was so obviously nervous, like he wanted to make a good impression, to make me laugh and feel comfortable.
But in truth, there wasn’t really that much to do in a town which pretty much consisted of one main street full of charity shops, the rusted old pier and a couple of shabby amusement arcades. More to the point, no one I knew ever had any money back then. Whether they were adults, like my mum or dad, always scrimping and saving to pay the bills, or youngsters like me and my friends, like Will, and everyone else in between. For that reason, you had to be a little creative, you had to make your own fun. And in that respect, Will certainly knew how to get the most out of a very limited situation.
“Follow me,” he said, leading me into one of those fusty-smelling charity shops. “There’s something I wanna show you.”
Once inside, he made a beeline for the back of the shop, pushing past rails of ugly floral print blouses and racks of second-hand paperbacks and old VHS videotapes, like he knew exactly what he was looking for.
“Jackpot.” He let go of my hand and dropped to his knees. “Check out these puppies.”
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he was so excited about, what he was eagerly scooping up off a shelf in a mess of tangled wires and dangly plugs. Or perhaps I did, only I couldn’t understand a) why he’d want to buy something like this, and b) why he appeared so elated by the prospect.
“Will,” I remember asking him outright, “why are you buying all these old answering machines? They’re crap and out of date, nobody uses those old things nowadays.”
“All in good time, Georgie, my girl, all in good time.”
And he flashed me this mischievous smile, one that told me to trust him, that what he had in mind was going to be just as much fun as last night.
And it was.
Back at his bedsit, Will told me to make myself at home, ‘me casa es su casa’, whilst he set about plugging in one of the answering machines.
“Thing with these,” he said, “people forget to wipe or take out the tapes when they give ’em to the charity shops.”
“What? So you can listen to all the old messages?”
He smiled again, nodded, and darted into the kitchen, quickly returning with a monstrous-looking joint wedged in the side of his mouth, two glasses, and this huge keg-like bottle of cider, the contents of which were so murky, I remember thinking there’s no way I’m drinking that gut rot rubbish, if it was actually quite pleasant, fruity, appley, and potent as anything.
After pouring us both a drink, Will sparked up the joint and told me to sit myself down on the lumpy old mattress on the floor, to relax and enjoy the show.
The first message was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard.
Hi, Rita, just Petra from yoga here. I’m a bit concerned that you’ve not been to the last two classes. I hope it hasn’t got anything to do with the unfortunate incident a few weeks back. I know that kind of thing can be extremely embarrassing. But believe me, I’ve been teaching yoga for over fifteen years now and it really is a common compliant, a bit of, erm…trapped wind being released from your front bottom, vaginal flatulence, mid-asana. None of the other girls thinks badly of you or anything like that. It’s just one of those things, so do please come along as normal next week. You were getting on so well and we’d hate for something like this to hinder your progress. Thanks, bye now.
I shot Will a quick look and we both burst out laughing.
“I told you, pure entertainment,” he said, great clouds of smoke exiting what looked like every orifice in his face – nose, mouth, ears – as he chuckled and tried not to choke himself in the process. “But, listen” – a bleep sounded – “there’s another message coming up.”
Hello, Rita, just your old dad here. So sorry to hear about your cat being run down in the street like that. Bloody shame. I used to love that little tabby. Bit of a character, weren’t he? If you need anything, don’t hesitate to give me and your mum a call. All right, love. Bye.
Hi, Rita, been trying to get hold of you for weeks. You’re not answering your phone. And when I called round the other day, I could’ve sworn someone was in, that I could see you behind the curtains. I do hope you’re okay, and that you’re not avoiding me. I know it’s never easy when a relationship ends. But for the record, I really do think you’re better off without Brian. He could be a horrible bastard, especially when he’d been drinking. And at times like this, you need your friends around you. You shouldn’t lock yourself away on your own and mope. So give us call, yeah? Even if it’s just to have a nice long chat and a good cry. I can pop round whenever you want. Take care. Bye.
“Bloody wars,” said Will, as the tape came to an end. “Poor old Rita’s been having a rough run in life, eh?”
Handing me the joint, he got up off the mattress, crouched, unplugged the answering machine, and replaced it with another one.
And that’s how the rest of the afternoon went. Like some kind of weird DJ-come-virtual-chat-show-host, Will switched machines, cueing up one set of messages after another, playing audio snapshots of people’s lives that I found both incredibly amusing and a little sad and disturbing at the same time.
Julie, Keith, I know we didn’t part on very good terms yesterday. And I think we were both at fault for that. Tempers flared. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that our Billy leant your Sam a pair of almost brand-new Manchester United football shorts. When Sam returned them, they were covered in so many skid marks up the back, it was as if the boy had literally shit himself. I know you said we should just bung ’em in the washing machine. But as I’m sure you appreciate, after they’ve been through something like that, Billy ain’t gonna want to wear ’em again. Some stains don’t wash out. And for that reason, I really do think that you, as Sam’s parents, should reimburse us with the money for a replacement pair of shorts. We’re more than happy to let you have the, erm…soiled pair, if that’s the issue. Give us a call back, yeah? I’d hate for something like this to come between us. We were good friends before, and can be again. But right’s right, after all.
Raquel, as you’re too cowardly to answer both your phone and your front door, I’m reduced to leaving a message on this stupid bloody machine. LEAVE MY HUSBAND ALONE. He’s not interested in you. What happened between you and him last year at the Christmas party was a drunken mistake, a one-off. He doesn’t want anything more to do with you, okay? He’s a family man with two young daughters he absolutely adores. So, the late-night phone calls, the following him around, the bloody stalking, the love letters in the post, it stops. TODAY. If not, you’ll have me to deal with. Understood?
Hi, Neil, I know this is a little cold, leaving a message on your answering machine, but I don’t really want to go out on a second date. I know we left it open-ended, like we might meet up again, but I didn’t really feel like we made a proper connection last night. To be honest, you didn’t really seem that interested in me as a person, you didn’t seem interested in talking about anything other than yourself. Which is fine, nothing wrong with that. Only I’m not really in to coarse fishing or calligraphy or Civil War re-enactments. But I’m sure there’s someone out there for you, though. And, erm…thanks again for paying for the meal. It really was delicious. All the best. Bye.
Paula, just a quick one to tell you that you were right. I just got it on very good authority that it was Mick who got diagnosed with Chlamydia first. And if that was the case, and he really had been carrying on with Trish, then we can follow the trail all the way to Irene and Jack. Those lot should be put up against and wall and shot. I mean, I’m no prude. If you want to mess around with your best friend’s wife and sister, that’s up to you. But make sure you’re not carrying a bloody STD while you’re at it, eh? Anyway, now you’re in the picture. If I hear anything else, you’ll be the first to know. Catch up with you at the weekend.
Some of the messages were in a sequence, like a thread, one after another, the same person calling about the same thing, over and over again.
Hello, pet, it’s your mum here, just to confirm about your plans for Christmas. Give us a ring back when you get a chance. No rush. No pressure. Bye.
Mum here again. What are you doing for Christmas, then? You know your dad’s not been well, might be the last Christmas he ever sees. Call me back and let me know if you’ll be coming Christmas Eve or the night before. Love you.
Arthur, please call me back about Christmas. Your brother and sister have confirmed. It wouldn’t be right if you weren’t here.
Look, love, don’t make me keep leaving messages on this machine. Even if you just come for the day, the main meal, it would mean a hell of a lot to your dad. Besides, no one wants to be on their own at Christmas. It’s a time for families. And we always used to have such a nice time, altogether, the five of us.
Arthur, I’m sorry to have to tell you that your dad passed away on Boxing Day. If it’s not too much trouble, you might find it in your heart to attend his funeral.
All of which was tragic, how people, families, once close, could drift apart like that, to the extent that a son wouldn’t even pick up the phone to his own mother. But nothing compared to this one series of messages we discovered.
Look, Caroline, we had an arrangement. I lent you the money. If you couldn’t keep up with the interest payments, you agreed to satisfy the debt in other ways. You know exactly what I mean. Now don’t mess me about. Tomorrow night. Eight o’clock. Your place. Make sure you’re looking your best. Make sure you put on something to get me in the mood. I’m a very demanding fella. But if you’re good to me, I’ll most certainly be good to you in return.
Naughty girl, Caroline. Staying out all night like that, standing me up. But you’re only delaying the inevitable. You know it, I know it. You’ve got to face up to your responsibilities. You’ve got to pay what’s owed. But I’m nothing if not a reasonable man. I’ll give you one last chance. Tonight. Same time, same place. Don’t let me down. If you do, you’ll regret it.
Hello, Caroline, only me again. If you’re in pick up…no? Well, never mind. I’m just calling to tell you how well I thought you performed last night. A little slow, compliance-wise, at first. But that’s why men are the superior sex, eh? And once we got down to it, I had a pretty good time of it. Not great. Not the best I’ve ever had. But enjoyable nonetheless. For that reason, I’d like to book another session. Let’s say Thursday, eight o’clock. Only this time, I might just have a bit of company.
“Christ,” said Will. “That’s a bit sinister, that. I wonder what it was all about. I wonder why she owed that fella the money.”
And we cuddled up on the mattress and speculated, creating a whole backstory to the whole sordid scene. How Caroline needed the money to get her little boy a life-saving operation in America, how she was so desperate she had to borrow it from a shady loan shark. But even though the procedure wasn’t a success and her little boy died, that evil money-lending bastard wouldn’t let her off the debt. At one point, we seriously considered trying to find out who she actually was, whether she was still around, and exactly what had happened to her. But for all we knew, the tape could’ve been five or more years old.
“One thing’s for certain, though,” said Will, “there’s some horrible bastards out there.” He pointed off towards the window, the town, the outside world and beyond. “Yeah, some really nasty pieces of work who don’t care whose lives they ruin.”
When we exhausted the answering machine quota in town, we’d walk along the beach and clifftops to Sheringham and raid their supplies, which were always abundant and, more importantly, dead cheap. To make a proper day of it, Will would go on these daredevil shoplifting sprees, pinching all of my favourite things from one of the supermarkets – fresh strawberries, Cadbury’s chocolate, luxury crisps. We’d then take our booty to a secluded coastal nook and have little picnic feasts, while taking the piss out of the flabby, lobster-red holidaymakers who’d been out in the sun too long without any protection.
“Look at the state of that twat, you’d think skin cancer had never happened, hey?”
But more than anything, Will was genuinely interested in me as a person, my life, interests, hobbies, family and friends, plans for the future. He’d always ask me stuff about my background, what sort of childhood I’d had, and if I got on with my parents or not.
“And what you gonna do after the summer?”
“Don’t know. Finish sixth-form. Maybe go to uni. I’ve not really thought about it all that much. What about you?”
“Oh, you know me – little to the left, little to the right, but always straight down the middle.”
In this light, jokey manner, he never really answered my questions; he always changed the subject if I showed any interest in him in return, if I asked about his background, childhood, and parents. All I knew was that he didn’t really have much to do with them anymore. Not that I thought it was odd at the time, how evasive he was. Will just had a bit of mystery about him, I guess. And would always deflect things by being dead playful or affectionate, suddenly wrestling me to the ground and tickling me like mad, or lobbing a rogue strawberry at my head and starting a food fight, or just drawing me close and giving me a massive hug.
When we finally got back to the bedsit, we’d smoke more weed, drink what felt like gallons of that potent cider, listen to the new tapes, laugh ourselves silly, and then make love for hours. And I deliberately said ‘make love’ as opposed to have sex, because Will was a really gentle, tender kind of lover, probably the gentlest, tenderest lover I’ve ever known. Not the best. Not the one man who drove me crazy with his merest touch, he just made everything feel so special, not like two animals drunkenly thrashing away at each other, but two proper people coming together, connecting, wanting to explore each other’s minds and bodies, to find out their own little sexual secrets, the things they liked best.
Most nights, I’d stay over at his place. Around midnight, one o’clock time, we’d creep down to the beach. There was never anybody about. And we’d take off our clothes and swim right out to sea. Well, as far as the end of the pier at least. Afterwards, we’d lie on a bank of shingle stones, still naked, and hold each other and look up at the stars, and talk about all kinds of stupid things: whether death by drowning really was the most peaceful way to die, if there really were intelligent lifeforms in outer space, or which Spice Girl we’d shoot if we only had one bullet. And it didn’t feel as if anything else in the world mattered apart from us being together, in each other’s arms like that.
Looking back now, it’s hard to say whether I was in love with Will or whether it was just a teenage infatuation thing, the thrill of being with an older, more experienced lad, that it was more about self-discovery than being bang in to another person, no matter how strongly I felt about him at the time.
Whatever it was, I certainly didn’t want a particularly special period of my life to finish quite so abruptly.
One afternoon, we managed to find a new batch of answering machines at one of the bigger charity shops in town. As always, we trooped back to the bedsit, got all the refreshment preparations out of the way, our drinks and smoke sorted, before Will cued up the first set of messages. Straight away, soon as this gravelly-voiced bloke started to talk, I knew something was wrong, just by the way Will’s face dropped and whole body stiffened. But when I asked him what it was, he didn’t respond, didn’t move, didn’t do nothing. It was as if he’d been paralysed by the sound of that voice, by the stuff the man was saying:
I’ve had that scummy druggy arsehole son of yours on the blower again, Pauline. After money as per bloody usual. Why can’t you just tell him, once and for all, that I’m not his real dad and that I don’t want nothing to do with him, that I don’t like him let alone love him, ’specially not after all the aggravation he’s caused over the years. And I’m not being nasty for the sake of it, like you always accuse me of. And I wouldn’t wish what happened to him, all that sex abuse stuff, on anyone. Not my worst enemy. But the bloody ponce has been playing the victim card for years. Why won’t you get a job? ’Cause I was touched up when I was a wee lad. Why won’t you get off them drugs? ’Cause those horrible men did all those nasty things to me. I’m sick of it. If he’s really that messed up, maybe it would better for all concerned if he topped himself and be done with it. Least we’d get a bit of peace and quiet.
It didn’t take a genius to work out who he was talking about. And it made my heart ache so badly for Will. ’Cause I now realised why he was so fascinated with the answering machines, with eavesdropping on other people’s lives – ’cause he couldn’t bear to think about his own life. I now realised why he was the way he was, full-stop, why he didn’t hang out with no one, why he didn’t have any real friends, why he was such a loner. And it really got to me, to think about all the stupid stuff we’d talked about that summer, all the stupid throwaway things we’d done, all those stupid messages we’d listened to, and not once had he felt that he could trust me enough to share something like this, to open up.
I reached out and touched his arm. I wanted to comfort him, to be there for him, to hug him and tell him everything was going to be all right. But he wouldn’t have it. He swung round and grabbed me hard, by the tops of the arms, so hard, it really hurt.
“Get out of here!” He pushed me off the mattress. “And don’t ever come back.”
And he never spoke to me again, wouldn’t answer his door, wouldn’t even acknowledge me in the street. And I could never really understand why. I know it was only natural for him to be a bit ashamed, having me hear all that dark personal stuff about him, stuff that made him feel proper vulnerable, but it didn’t make me think any less of him as a person. Adults, our parents, especially, are arseholes, nasty, bitter, twisted bastards. Everybody knows that. The only thing we perhaps don’t realise, is that we’re already well on our way to becoming just like them.
Neil Randall is a novelist and short story writer. His debut novel, A Quiet Place to Die (Wild Wolf Publishing), was voted e-thriller Book of the Month for February 2014. His first collection of short stories, Tales of Ordinary Sadness (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2016) received much critical acclaim. One story was short-listed for the prestigious Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2009, another long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015. His latest novel, Bestial Burdens (Cephalopress) was released in April of last year. His shorter fiction and poetry have been published in the UK, US, India, Australia and Canada.