QUESTION: Stepson to Robert Dudley and onetime favorite of Elizabeth I, which nobleman led a poorly planned and unsuccessful revolt against the queen, and was subsequently executed in 1601?
ANSWER: Essex. All young people worry about things, it’s a natural and inevitable part of growing up, and at the age of sixteen my greatest anxiety in life was that I’d never again achieve anything as good, or pure, or noble, or true, as my O-level exam results.
I didn’t make a big deal about them at the time, of course; I didn’t frame the certificates or anything weird like that, and I won’t go into the actual grades here, because then it just gets competitive, but I definitely liked having them: qualifications. Sixteen years old, and the first time I’d ever felt qualified for anything.
Of course, all that was a long, long time ago. I’m eighteen now, and I like to think I’m a lot wiser and cooler about these things. So my A-levels are, comparatively, no big deal. Besides, the notion that you can somehow quantify intelligence by some ridiculous, antiquated system of written examinations is obviously specious. Having said that, they were Langley Street Comprehensive School’s best A-level results of 1985, the best for fifteen years in fact, three As and a B, that’s nineteen points—there, I’ve said it now—but I really, honestly don’t believe that’s particularly relevant, I just mention them in passing. And, anyway, compared to other qualities, like physical courage, or popularity, or good looks, or clear skin, or an active sex life, just knowing a whole load of stuff isn’t actually that important.
But like my dad used to say, the crucial thing about an education is the opportunity that it brings, the doors it opens, because otherwise knowledge, in and of itself, is a blind alley, especially from where I’m sitting, here, on a late-September Wednesday afternoon, in a factory that makes toasters.
I’ve spent the holiday working in the dispatch department of Ashworth Electricals, which means I’m responsible for putting the toasters in their boxes before they’re sent out to the retailers. Of course, there are only so many ways you can put a toaster in a box, so it’s been a pretty dull couple of months over all, but, on the plus side, it’s £1.85 an hour, which isn’t bad, and as much toast as you can eat. As it’s my last day here, I’ve been keeping an eye open for the surreptitious passing round of the good-bye card and the collection for the leaving present, and waiting to find out which pub we’re going to for farewell drinks, but it’s 6:15 now, so I think it’s probably safe to assume that everyone’s just gone home.
Just as well, though, because I had other plans anyway, so I get my stuff, grab a handful of Bics and a roll of tape from the stationery cupboard, and head off to the pier, where I’m meeting Spencer and Tone.
At 2,360 yards, or 2.158 kilometers, Southend Pier is officially the longest pier in the world. This is probably a little bit too long, to be honest, especially when you’re carrying a lot of lager. We’ve got twelve large cans of Skol, sweet-and-sour pork balls, special fried rice and a portion of chips with curry sauce—flavors from around the world—but by the time we reach the end of the pier, the lagers are warm and the takeaway’s cold. As this is a special celebration Tone’s also had to lug his ghetto blaster, which is the size of a small wardrobe and, it’s fair to say, will probably never blast a ghetto, unless you count Shoeburyness. At the moment it’s playing Tone’s homemade compilation The Best of the Zep as we settle down on a bench at the end and watch as the sun sets majestically over the petrol refinery.
“You’re not going to turn into a wanker, are you?” says Tone, opening a can of lager.
“What d’you mean?”
“He means you’re not going to get all studenty on us,” says Spencer.
“Well, I am a student. I mean, I will be, so . . .”
“No, but I mean you’re not going to get all twatty and up-your-own-arse and come home at Christmas in a gown, talking Latin and saying ‘One does’ and ‘One thinks’ and all that—”
“Yeah, Tone, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Well, don’t. Because you’re enough of a twat already without becoming even more of a twat.”
I get called “twat” a lot by Tone, either “twat” or “gaylord,” but the trick is to make a sort of linguistic adjustment, and try to think of it as a term of affection, in the same way as some couples say “dear” or “darling.” Tone’s just started a job in the warehouse in Currys, and is starting to develop a nice little sideline in knocked-off portable hi-fis, like the one we’re listening to now. It’s his Led Zeppelin tape too; Tone likes to call himself a “metallist,” which sounds more vocational than “rocker” or “heavy-metal fan.” He dresses like a metallist too; lots of light blue denim, and long, flicked-back lustrous blond hair, like an effeminate Viking. Tone’s hair is actually the only effeminate thing about him. This is, after all, a man steeped in brutal violence. The mark of a successful evening out with Tone is that you get home without having had your head flushed down a toilet.
It’s “Stairway to Heaven” now.
“Do we have to listen to this fucking hippie bollocks, Tone?” says Spencer.
“This is the Zep, Spence.”
“I know it’s the Zep, Tone, that’s why I want you to turn the fucking thing off.”
“But the Zep rule.”
“Why? Because you say they rule?”
“No, because they were a massively influential and important band.”
“They’re singing about pixies, Tony. It’s embarrassing. . . .”
“Not pixies . . .”
“Elves then,” I say.
“It’s not just pixies and elves, it’s Tolkien, it’s literature. . . .” Tone loves that stuff; books with maps in the front, and cover illustrations of big, scary women in chain mail underwear, holding broadswords, the kind of woman that, in an ideal world, he’d marry. Which, in Southend, is actually a lot more feasible than you’d think.
“What’s the difference between a pixie and an elf, anyway?” asks Spencer.
“Dunno. Ask Jackson, he’s the cunt with the qualifications.”
“I dunno, Tone,” I say.
The guitar solo has kicked in and Spencer’s wincing now. “Does it ever end or does it just go on and on and on and on. . . .”
“It’s seven minutes, thirty-two seconds of pure genius.”
“Pure torture,” I say. “Why’s it always your choice, anyway?”
“Because it’s my ghetto blaster—”
“Which you nicked. Technically, it still belongs to Currys.”
“Yeah, but I buy the batteries. . . .”
“No, you nick the batteries.”
“Not these, I bought these.”
“So how much were the batteries, then?”
“One pound ninety-eight.”
“So if I give you sixty-six pence, can we have something decent on?”
“What, like Kate Bush? All right, then, Jackson, let’s put some Kate Bush on then, all have a really good time listening to Kate Bush, all have a really, really good dance and a singalong to Kate Bush. . . .” And while Tone and I are bickering, Spencer leans over to the ghetto blaster, nonchalantly ejects The Best of the Zep, and skims it far out to sea.
Tone shouts “Oi!” and throws his can of lager after him as they both run off down the pier. It’s best not to get too involved in the fights. Tone tends to get a little bit out of control, possessed by the spirit of Odin or something, and if I get involved, it will inevitably end with Spencer sitting on my arms while Tone farts in my face, so I just sit very still, drink my lager and watch Tone trying to hoist Spencer’s legs over the pier railings.
Even though it’s September, there’s the beginning of a damp chill in the evening air, a sense of summer coming to an end, and I’m glad I wore my army-surplus greatcoat. I’ve always hated summer; the way the sun shines on the TV screen in the afternoons, and the relentless pressure to wear T-shirts and shorts. I hate T-shirt and shorts. If I were to stand outside a chemist in T-shirt and shorts, I guarantee some old dear would try and put a coin in the top of my head.
No, what I’m really looking forward to is the autumn, to kicking through leaves on the way to a lecture, talking excitedly about the metaphysical poets with a girl called Emily, or Katherine, or Françoise, or something, with black opaque woolly tights and a Louise Brooks bob, then going back to her tiny attic room and making love in front of her electric bar fire. Afterward we’ll read T. S. Eliot aloud and drink fine vintage port out of tiny little glasses while listening to Miles Davis. That’s what I imagine it’s going to be like, anyway. The University Experience. I like the word experience. It makes it sound like a ride at Alton Towers.
The fight’s over, and Tone is burning off his excess aggression by throwing sweet-and-sour pork balls at the seagulls. Spencer walks back, tucking his shirt in, sits down next to me and opens another can of lager. Spencer really has a way with a can of lager; watching him, you could almost imagine he’s drinking from a martini glass.
Spencer’s the person I’ll miss the most. He isn’t going to university, even though he’s easily the cleverest person I’ve ever met, as well as the best-looking, and the hardest, and the coolest. I wouldn’t tell him any of that, of course, because it would sound a bit creepy, but there’s no need, as he clearly knows it, anyway. He could have gone to university if he’d really wanted to, but he fouled up his exams; not deliberately, as such, but everyone could see him doing it. He was at the desk next to me for the English set-text paper, and you could tell by the movements of his pen that he wasn’t writing, he was drawing. For his Shakespeare question he drew The Merry Wives of Windsor, and for poetry he did a picture entitled Wilfred Owen Experiences the Horror of the Trenches at Firsthand. I kept trying to catch his eye, so I could give him a friendly “Hey, come on, mate” kind of look, but he just kept his head down, drawing away, and then after an hour he got up, and walked out, winking at me on the way; not a cocky wink, a slightly tearful, red-eyed wink, like a plucky Tommy on his way to the firing squad.
After that, he just stopped coming in for exams. In private, the phrase “nervous breakdown” was mentioned a couple of times, but Spencer’s far too cool to have a nervous breakdown. Or, if he did, he’d make the nervous breakdown seem cool. The way I see it, that whole Jack Kerouac, tortured existential thing is fine up to a point, but not if it’s going to interfere with your grades.
“So, what are you going to do, Spence?”
He narrows his eyes, looks at me. “What d’you mean, ‘do’?”
“You know. Job-wise.”
“I’ve got a job.” Spencer’s signing on, but also working cash-in-hand at the all-night petrol station on the A127.
“I know you’ve got a job. But in the future . . .”
Spencer looks out across the estuary, and I start to regret raising the subject.
“Your problem, Brian, my friend, is that you underestimate the appeal of life in an all-night petrol station. I get to eat as much confectionery as I want. Road atlases to read. Interesting fumes to inhale. Free wineglasses . . .” He takes a long swig of lager, and looks for a way to change the subject. Reaching into his Harrington, he pulls out a cassette tape with a handwritten inlay card: “I made this for you. So you can play it in front of your new university friends, trick them into thinking you’ve got taste.”
I take the tape, which has “Bri’s College Compilation” written down the spine in careful 3-D capitals. Spencer’s a brilliant artist.
“This is fantastic, Spencer, thanks, mate. . . .”
“All right, Jackson, it’s only a sixty-nine-pee tape from the market, no need to cry about it.” He says that, but we’re both aware that a ninety-minute compilation tape represents a good three hours of work, more if you’re going to design an inlay card. “Put it on, will you? Before the muppet comes back.”
I put the tape in, press play, and it’s Curtis Mayfield singing “Move On Up.” Spencer was a mod, but has moved on to vintage soul; Al Green, Gil Scott-Heron, that kind of thing. Spencer’s so cool he even likes jazz. Not just Sade and the Style Council, either; proper jazz, the irritating, boring stuff. We sit and listen for a while. Tone’s now trying to wheedle money out of the telescopes with the flick knife he bought on a school trip to Calais, and Spencer and I watch like the indulgent parents of a child with acute behavioral problems.
“So are you coming back at weekends?” asks Spencer.
“I don’t know. I expect so. Not every weekend.”
“Make sure you do, though, won’t you? Otherwise I’ll just be stuck here on my own with Conan the Barbarian. . . .” And Spencer nods toward Tone, who’s now taking running jumps and drop-kicking the telescope.
“Shouldn’t we make a toast or something?” I say.
Spencer curls his lip. “A toast? What for?”
“You know—to the future or something?”
Spencer sighs, and taps his can against mine. “To the future. Here’s hoping your skin clears up.”
“Piss off, Spencer,” I say.
“Piss off, Brian,” he says, but laughing.
By the time we’re on to the last cans of lager, we’re pretty drunk, so we lie on our backs, not saying anything, just listening to the sea and Otis Redding singing “Try a Little Tenderness,” and on this clear late summer night, looking up at the stars, with my best mates either side of me, it feels as if real life is beginning at last, and that absolutely everything is possible.
I want to be able to listen to recordings of piano sonatas and know who’s playing. I want to go to classical concerts and know when you’re meant to clap. I want to be able to “get” modern jazz without it all sounding like this terrible mistake, and I want to know who the Velvet Underground are exactly. I want to be fully engaged in the World of Ideas, I want to understand complex economics, and what people see in Bob Dylan. I want to possess radical but humane and well-informed political ideals, and I want to hold passionate but reasoned debates round wooden kitchen tables, saying things like “Define your terms!” and “Your premise is patently specious!” and then suddenly to discover that the sun’s come up and we’ve been talking all night. I want to use words like eponymous and solipsistic and utilitarian with confidence. I want to learn to appreciate fine wines, and exotic liqueurs, and single malts, and learn how to drink them without turning into a complete prat, and to eat strange and exotic foods, plovers’ eggs and lobster thermidor, things that sound barely edible, or that I can’t pronounce. I want to make love to beautiful, sophisticated, intimidating women, during daylight or with the light on, even, and sober, and without fear, and I want to be able to speak many languages fluently, and maybe even a dead language or two, and to carry a small leather-bound notebook in which I jot incisive thoughts and observations, and the occasional line of verse. Most of all I want to read books; books thick as a brick, leather-bound books with incredibly thin paper and those purple ribbons to mark where you left off; cheap, dusty, secondhand books of collected verse, incredibly expensive, imported books of incomprehensible essays from foreign universities.
At some point, I’d like to have an original idea. And I’d like to be fancied, or maybe loved, even, but I’ll wait and see. And as for a job, I’m not sure exactly what I want yet, but something that I don’t despise, and that doesn’t make me ill, and that means I don’t have to worry about money all the time. And all of these are the things that a university education’s going to give me.
We finish off the lager, then things get out of hand. Tone throws my shoes into the sea, and I have to walk home in my socks.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Question of Attraction by David Nicholls. Copyright © 2004 by David Nicholls. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.