by Dave Wakely
I should confess that your second request last weekend—that I write to you now that you’ve left home, ready to start University—was as unexpected and delightful as the first, although walking beside you on your first (and quite probably my last) Pride March was certainly a joy, as I hope it was for you and your charming friend.
Thank you for the rest of the afternoon too: I haven’t been so well-pampered in longer than I wish to recall. When I was your age, taking a companion so openly for tea at The Ritz would have been a very different invitation. If not to arrest, then certainly to a waiter’s sharply whispered words about discretion. The hotels that Frank and I visited were decidedly less grand.
You couldn’t meet men like Frank in England back then: you had to find them abroad and smuggle them home, exotic as kumquats or quinces. The hippies went backpacking to find themselves, but we went to find each other. I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. We eyed each other’s reflections for two or three hours before we found the nerve to speak. He always told me he noticed my vivid green eyes first, although it was more likely a pair of shorts that would have been a public scandal in Northolt. I hope your first encounter with Joshua was easier, and I’m glad the world is so different now. If there’s one thing to prepare for in life, it’s unexpected change. Much of it will be wonderful, of course, but don’t go assuming it will always be progress.
(Joshua, by the way, is clearly totally infatuated. There are always grazed hearts in the adult playground and no-one else to stick on our plasters, so do let him down gently if the feeling isn’t mutual. Every biography has a few footnotes: you never know who you’ll meet again thirty years later, and it’s better to do so as friends. They’re a precious commodity at any age.)
But I have already fallen into a trap I promised myself I’d avoid. While I’m complimented that you assume I possess any wisdom worth sharing—you seem too straightforward a young man to offer flattery—advice has never been a personal forte. As Frank would tell you were he still with us, I’ve never had any talent for taking it so I’ve always thought it only fair to avoid offering it.
But a request is a request, and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe in manners. I’m not your father—charming man though he is—so I’m not going to pass judgement on anything as inconsequential as sex, drugs and rock and roll, although if you really must combine all three Ravel’s Boléro trumps techno for tenderness. (As you will discover in time, grey hairs may speak of experience but they don’t tend to reveal the details. This can be a mercy.) Maybe some of what I write will help, or maybe it will amuse you to read the quaint ramblings of an old man. Amusement is no bad thing.
Your mother tells me that you want to be a research chemist when you graduate, and I thoroughly approve. Scientists believe in questions and in challenging beliefs, and so do I. Indeed, there have been decades when I’ve had little choice. Maybe you could inspire some of the clever people who are trying to cure my arthritis to find a way of making good manners infectious? Beyond the cost of a turned cheek or a bitten tongue, they are highly affordable. I am not so out of touch with today’s world that I don’t appreciate the attraction of low-cost options.
I have no idea what a modern Chemistry curriculum looks like, but I do hope you’ll educate yourself as widely as you can – and not just at University. Ignorance can indeed be bliss, but mostly for the ignorant. Even if we can Google everything nowadays, life is not a pub quiz and there’s more to understanding than a checklist of facts. But facts are still important: be as fussy about their origins as you would with food. Don’t let anything pass your lips if you don’t know where it came from, as my mother used to tell me. (And do you think I listened?)
Learn languages so you can travel properly – in your head and heart, as well as in an aeroplane. Every tongue has useful phrases: ‘Your country is so beautiful,’ or ‘I like your trousers.’ A degree of fluency can be helpful too. ‘There is no need for alarm, officer: my friend and I were practising for the Mongolian wrestling tournament.’ I’m a little rusty now, but I used to know that in several languages.
Learn to flirt – with women as well as men. Ignoring half the planet is both foolish and rude, and flirting is flattery. It’s like passing wind. Everyone does it, but few of us mean to follow through. And when you’re trapped in a dull business lunch, it’s the fastest way to stop a tedious straight colleague mansplaining about market recapitalisation or the future of the acrylic carpet-tile industry in the Anglian region. Rest your hand on his as you ask him to pass the salt; bat an eyelash or two. Just don’t try this with thugs.
Read voraciously and widely. Books are cheaper than airplane tickets and they don’t give you thrombosis, even if they can make you heave or land you with a bump. Not just text books but novels, biographies, poetry, essays…artists ask as many questions as scientists, even if the answers aren’t as clear-cut. Books help you have things to say too. I’ve learned down the years that we all talk about the things that matter most to us—just look how often I’ve mentioned Frank—and anyone who’s their own favourite subject needs two words of advice. Check yourself. It’s not just your balls you need to scrutinise for lumps; rummage through your personality occasionally too. Arrogance makes halitosis seem positively endearing, and callousness clogs arteries as catastrophically as cholesterol.
Practise gratitude when you can. Beauty may be only skin deep—and there are enough creams and lotions to help with that—but ugliness can run right down to the bone. Etiquette might seem old hat, but perhaps with all those things that are suddenly in vogue again—manual typewriters, gearless bicycles, even some actual old hats—it will acquire some fleeting fashionable glamour. All the better if it did so without all that archness and irony, of course, but one can hope for too much.
By the way, try not to follow my example and get bogged down in being philosophical, especially if you’re doing it to impress. On what you might call our second date, I took Frank to Richmond ice-rink – long demolished now, like so much of my past. Afterwards, as we walked along the towpath, I poured out some profound baloney about life being like ice-skating. About how when we’re hungry and we need to fish, the ice is always too thick. And when we’re tired and need to rest, it’s thin as rice paper and we have to hurry on to avoid falling through. Frank smiled and told me he’d had a lovely evening but his arse was a mass of bruises and he’d love to share a bag of chips if I was offering. Always carry an emergency fiver: sometimes people just want chips. Or liniment.
It will seem petty, but I was impressed at how cross you got as we tried to walk across Euston station while everyone blundered about, trailing their silly little wheelie suitcases and bruising people’s ankles. (And yes, it was sweet that they smiled at our rainbow scarves, but tolerance is over-rated: having someone tolerating one aspect of my life doesn’t mean I’ll grant them carte blanche in return.) But my point is about more than manners. It’s a weary metaphor, but too much baggage hurts others as well as ourselves. When something gets too heavy to carry, let it go: a single regret can weigh enough to snap your spine. Our lovers may become Sherpas in time, but don’t ask them to start that way. ‘For better or for worse’ is a beautiful vow but a ghastly chat-up line.
If and when you finally settle—I admit my bias here, but it’s a wonderful thing when it happens—don’t tell yourself gardening is only for old men. A garden not only gives you fresh herbs and vegetables: it teaches you patience. Even if the only thing you plant for the next few years are kisses, don’t expect a harvest overnight. Everything valuable in this world needs time, care and attention, so learn how to provide them: if you find love, nurture it. Life’s a complicated game, but a pair of queens is a good hand if you play it well. If I’ve not tortured the metaphor beyond endurance, be watchful. Even a single weed can choke an orchard if you let it thrive: pull them out like rotten teeth. (Gardens have a free bonus too: pansies never ask your age.)
Beyond that I can offer only witty aphorisms, and nothing you couldn’t work out for yourself. That sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can sting like hailstones. That there are some things you see more clearly as you get older, no matter what your optician may tell you. That privilege is like a penis: men who wish they had more of it are mainly interested in inflicting it on others. And that lust is like a veggieburger: it fills you up for twenty minutes, but it’s never going to be the real thing.
But you’ve already offered the best advice yourself, although you probably don’t remember. Ten years ago, an over-enthusiastic toe-kick sailed your football into our garden; although we’d spoken with your parents many times, your knock on our door was the first time we ever met you.
You stood bolt upright on our step, shoulders back and chest out, and introduced yourself. ‘My name is Damian and I live next door,’ you said. ‘My ball is in your garden.’
And then you thrust forward your hand and shook first mine and then Frank’s. Except you didn’t let go of his. You carried on carefully examining it, pressing it gently and stroking the lines on his palm with your fingers while I retrieved your football from beneath the rhododendrons.
‘Mummy said you’re dying, but she’s wrong,’ you told him, firmly. ‘I can feel your pulse, and you’re definitely living. That’s good. You should do more of it,’ you said, before you ran off with your football tucked under your arm. When we closed the door behind you, Frank’s face had one of the biggest grins I ever saw.
Keep people smiling, Damian. You’ll go a long way like that, and people will be glad to meet you when you get there. And if you have a spare moment or two on those travels with no better way to fill them, perhaps you will send me a postcard? Other voices make life richer, and it would be a joy to hear from you.
Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator and editor. Now co-organising Milton Keynes Literary Festival and Lodestone Poets, his stories have appeared in Ambit, Best Gay Stories 2017, Chelsea Station, Glitterwolf, Holdfast, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Prole, Shooter and Token. He blogs occasionally at https://theverbalist.wordpress.com
For September Slam writers were invited to submit stories based on the following prompt provided by writer, novelist and publisher Nicholas Royle: “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.”
Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections—Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), Ornithology (Confingo Publishing), The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories (Swan River Press)—and seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage). He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize.
Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks.