Somewhere I Hadn’t Been Before
For a while it was every weekend. The girl from Liverpool would ride the bus down to Bathampton, and we would sit in my flat and watch television, or maybe go to the George for a drink, and then we would go to bed. She would get up Sunday and go home to Liverpool, and each time, her expression from the bus window was as if she did not know me.
Her name was Mattie, but for some reason, during most of the time that I knew her, we seldom called one another by name. I had said to her, “Come down whenever you like, but I can’t guarantee I’ll be at home.” This was hardly the case, as I rarely went anywhere in those days; I had spent a significant amount of time (not to mention my father’s money) drifting about, first in South America and then all through the British Isles and Europe, and I suppose I felt I was finished with all of that. I added, “And please, don’t ask me to come to Liverpool to meet your family.”
“I haven’t any family now,” she said. This was a lie, as I would learn later from an acquaintance. She had a father who had been separated from his legs in a dockyard accident and who now seemed to survive on scotch and cigarettes, it was said. But truthfully, he hasn’t much significance in my story concerning Mattie, nor—as I can now plainly see—even in Mattie’s own life up to that point, so we may as well dispense with him sooner than later.
When I met her, she had been working in a shoe store for some seven years. At the time, Liverpool’s economy was as dreary as its weather, still suffering through the slow demise of its shipping industry, and she was actually quite fortunate, she said, to have any sort of work at all. I suppose that even people in Liverpool have to buy shoes every so often, and the bus fare was cheap, and she really had nothing much more to do than to come to Bathampton and spend the better part of her paycheck with me in the George pub.
That was where I had first seen her. She had come in alone, and she didn’t look at me or anyone else; she was not even looking at the barman when she ordered her beer. All of the tables in the little pub were occupied, little clumps of conversation, but as she and I were the only ones at the bar, I mustered some effort and struck up conversation. She confessed that she had lost track of her friends at the Bath-Liverpool football match and now was waiting until she could get the 8:00 bus home—surely a credible enough tale, although I didn’t know what sort of friends would allow her to wander around lost in a rabble of football fans, and I said as much to her.
“They aren’t very good friends,” she said.
“I see. Well,” I said, “let’s have another beer, and then I’ll walk you up to the station.”
But it did not go that way. We drank and talked until it was well past ten, and then she came back with me to my flat.
If you are a man from anyplace in America and you come to live in England (and especially if you have some financial means), you will probably find very shortly that your way of looking at women will change. I had realized initially that there are some very pretty girls here indeed, but they were attractive to me by the gaudiest of American standards: I was like many other youths—easily drawn in by make-up, perfume, any sort of artifice… I learned that the true English girls are the most ordinary-looking ones, and Mattie was one of these. She had the true, fair skin, which can even appear ghostly by pub-light, and the short-cropped, unstylish dark hair, with the sort of eyes you are likely to encounter in a bus station. She was Liverpuddlean to the core, and best of all, she seemed to share my appreciation for strong beer and unadorned conversation.
That night we made love in a strange, almost dispassionate way, with a heaviness in our bodies. It was to be this way many times, and it never truly satisfied me, but it became part of the ritual of our weekends. And the following Sunday, just as it would be many times, she took the bus back, and I heard nothing from her until Friday when she turned up once again at the George.
I confess it was odd to see nothing of her, sometimes not even to think about her even once, for six days in a row and then suddenly settle into the George with her as though we were old chums. Once in a while, after the George, if we did not feel like going home, we would take a taxi and have another drink at the Pajama Club, an after-hours bar in Bath proper. And during all that time, she never asked me to come over to her place in Liverpool. As it happened, Liverpool was one of the few towns in Britain I had not at least passed through, but it made no difference because Bathampton is a fine place and she wanted to get away and I did not. I was already away.
There was a kind of contentment in me as well, in those days, because I could share the predictability of the coming weekend with a simple girl in such a predictable and simple way. I liked that about her. In all my old haunts—prep schools, country club lounges, tiled verandas, and the like—the girls I had known were also simple, but they were not predictable, for money had given them options that others do not have, just as it has done for me. And now, even if I should ever go back, it would be impossible for me to experience again the things I’ve found I really do miss: the scent of freshly mown athletic fields, the ammonia-singed air of the school cafeteria, the damp warmth of gymnasiums, and the excited voices of young people vibrating in the autumn crispness.
Mattie did not know how lucky she was to have none of this kind of stuff in her past. For us there was merely the performance of simple acts. Beneath our tangled shroud, we did not worry whether the sex had been scintillating, merely acceptable, or mediocre, perhaps even tedious. I did not believe then that there was anything much about my life that was really meant to be, and so I felt that she might as well come around whenever she liked—or not.
And each time she got on the bus to go home, she would look out the window, and if I happened to be standing there still, she would not gesture or acknowledge me, and seemed not even to recognize me, so that anyone watching would not have guessed we knew one another at all. Then the bus would diesel away toward Liverpool.
I remember quite well the last time she came to see me because, to begin with, there was a fistfight that night outside the Pajama Club, where we stood waiting in line for the doors to open at midnight. I saw the whole thing as it unfolded from the start. Most of us who were waiting were at least slightly inebriated, and a few were all the way in the bag. Two foolish men who had gotten especially loud began to shout insults at the doorman, for no good reason that I could tell: they were misbehaving for their own amusement, it seemed. The doorman did not look especially intimidating in his white dress shirt and narrow tie, but he had an air of resolve about him. He told them straight out that they would not be invited inside, if they kept up their noise, but this only caused them to take up their verbal assault with renewed vigor.
I whispered to Mattie, “I think there’s going to be a fight.”
The two drunkards kept at the doorman steadily, assuring him, in the most vulgar language imaginable, what they would do to him if he would only join them around the corner.
There were twelve of us or so watching this absurd scene played out to its inevitable end. I stared, riveted, but some bystanders pretended not to notice at all, and looked at the sidewalk, or down the street, as if expecting someone they knew to emerge from the darkness. The doorman himself seemed remarkably unaffected, except to tell his hecklers once again to be on their way. I could feel my own heart thudding, a cylinder driven by adrenaline and distress at not knowing what was about to happen.
Mattie tugged at my sleeve and pointed, and I saw then that there were two police officers across the street, also closely watching these goings-on. Relief surged through me as I waited for the moment when they would intercede and take the two drunkards into custody. But they did not do so. Instead, as if by silent signal, they abruptly walked around the corner and out of sight.
When they had done so, the doorman came down the steps to meet his two antagonists. He moved rather casually, and smiled, like some friendly fellow on an errand to the post office or the bank. The two drunkards staggered away from the queue, blinking, confused, and in a sudden flurry the doorman had pummeled both of them so quickly and so efficiently that I might have missed it had I turned my head. In a matter of seconds, they were both prone on the cement, and from the way he kicked them as they were lying there, I knew their needling really had gotten to him a little, after all. Now the two bobbies showed up, somewhat sheepish: one of them radioed for an ambulance as the other lifted the head of one of the now sleeping men to let the blood drain into the gutter. This was the last we saw of them, as the club’s doors opened wide and we were all herded in.
Mattie and I sat in silence for quite a long time. I had that empty feeling I always have whenever I have witnessed an act of violence, and I believed that anything else I might say the rest of the night would somehow seem pointless. I knew that the two imbeciles outside had probably gotten what they deserved, but I still felt hollow, as I gazed distastefully at my glass of scotch. And that was when Mattie said to me, “Mike, I’m pregnant.”
I cannot say what I thought about or what I said in response because I don’t remember, frankly. I think it’s likely that I made no remark at all, and I am reasonably certain that for the remainder of that evening, I pretended to have not quite heard her—after all, unlike the tidy, cozy George, the music in this place was blaring. But the next morning I went down to the bank, riding in a taxi because it was pissing down rain, and hurrying because I was unsure about the bank’s hours on Saturdays. When I returned to the flat she was making coffee (she hated tea, she said).
I put the bank envelope on the table and said, “There’s five hundred pounds there. Take it.”
“Yeah? For what?”
“I don’t know for what. For whatever.”
She took the bus that afternoon, not wanting to hang around until Sunday, she remarked, because the shoe store would be taking inventory and she needed some rest. And when the bus wheezed, sagged, and then slowly tugged itself away, even though her windowpane was obscured by the rain, I could see that she was smiling.
I heard nothing more from her. She did not come back to Bathampton the following Friday, and I did my best to forget her. I put in overtime at the printing shop; I tried going to the George with my same regularity, but found I did not care to stay for very long; I watched a lot of television. Four months passed, and then one Saturday, bored to distraction, I rented a car, with every intention of driving myself down to the coast for the weekend for a short holiday. Of course, the weather was dismal again, and suddenly, vividly, it came back. The memory of that afternoon when Mattie’s bus had pulled out, an image I thought I had so utterly drowned, came thrashing out of whatever water it had been treading, and quite unexpectedly I found myself on the highway going north toward Liverpool.
I suppose I convinced myself that it was for her I was going, to save her, in essence, from her miserable shoe store, and not because I thought that seeing her bravely carrying my baby, as I was sure she was, could dispel the guilt that lay just beneath those hundred-pound notes I had placed on the table that morning. For some of us, it takes a long time to know what you really believe or feel, and even longer to be able to confess to it: now, seeing it all after so many years, I have come to understand that I had simply begun to miss her.
I had no idea what I might say to her if I found her. At first sight, Liverpool looked to be more sprawling than I had imagined, and on its narrow streets I saw many girls in dark-colored raincoats, with short, dark hair. Strangely, all of them seemed to resemble Mattie.
With the exception of hardcore Beatles devotees (and this was only a couple of years after the murder of John Lennon), tourists typically left this town of Liverpool off of their itineraries, and I could see why. It was sooty and uncleaned by the English rain, a series of gray facades and odd artificial lightings, and tough-looking taverns that did not invite the stranger. Still, you know how it is when you are somewhere and you think, “I know this place—I’m sure that I have been here before,” but you know that you have not. That was the feeling I had in Liverpool.
I visited a half-dozen shoe stores near the dockyards, each time discouraged and yet relieved to climb back into the warmth and dryness of the idling rental car. It was a good, small car, and it suited me very well, and I wondered why I had never bothered to buy one for myself. It was my intention to give Mattie a good ride in it and thus probably make her whole week, for it was certain she was sick to death of buses. At last I hit on the store where she worked. Naturally, it was her day off, but a runt of a salesman told me the name of a pub where she could likely be found on a Saturday, and I went straightaway to find it.
The darkness was falling, or more accurately, it was the heavier, thicker darkness that meant evening was coming on, and the steady drizzle showed no sign of letting up. I found the little pub to which the shoe clerk had directed me—a dim place with no windows and no fireplace and very little of anything in the way of decor except for a few metal tables and one of those small jukeboxes fixed to the wall, and the bar, of course, where I proceeded quickly and ordered a soda. I had seen her right away, seated along the wall with a very thin young man in a denim jacket, the sleeves of which were cut off to exhibit jagged tattoos on stringy arms. Mattie herself had on jeans and a shiny faux-leather jacket I had never seen before (I supposed these were her Liverpool clothes), and a strange excitement shot through me when I saw that her belly protruded from the unzipped jacket. The two of them were apparently well wrapped in conversation, and it was several minutes before she looked up and saw me; her face went dead. It took another five minutes or so for her to work up the nerve to excuse herself and come over to the bar.
“What are you doing?” she asked, setting down her beer glass.
“Never been to Liverpool,” I said.
I have never known anyone else who could assume a facial expression so emotionally devoid, but all the same somehow, her face looked very pretty to me just at that moment, almost as though I had never really even looked at her before.
“How does it strike you?” she asked.
“Nice. I like it.”
Across the room the man in the denim vest got up and wandered over to the jukebox, casting a dark scowl my way. He put a coin in and cranked up the old Meatloaf song, ‘Bat Out of Hell.’ I wondered if he was among the same “friends” she said had abandoned her at the football game the night I first met her.
“Listen, Mattie,” I said, “I want you to come back to Bathampton with me. Today. Right now.”
Something changed, her face shifted, and she said, “Honest to God, Mike, I don’t know why you don’t just go back home.”
“I know,” I said. “I will. But I want you to come with me.”
She shook her head. “No, I mean back to America. I don’t think you even know why you’re here. Why are you here, anyway?”
“I…I guess I don’t know,” I said. But even as I sat there, even as I spoke, I thought at once about how I’d loved England from the very first moment, loved it from the airplane window, and about the hedges in summer and about the cold winter mornings along the canal in Bathampton and the sound of the ice breaking into the current and the bent old man repairing his garden wall in his suit and tie, and all the rest, but I could not say any of that to her.
“Listen,” I said. “Why don’t you come for a good long stay with me in Bathampton? You may need to be off your feet in a few more months anyway. I have enough money. There’s enough room in my flat for you and…for all of us. I’ll even buy us a car and…”
“Oh, Jesus, Mike,” she said.
“I’m serious,” I said. “Fuck this Liverpool.”
She kept shaking her head. “Jesus, Mike, look at yourself.”
She picked up her glass, and I put my hand on hers. “No, Mattie,” I said. “That’s the first thing you’re going to have to stop. You know you can’t be drinking when you’re... You know it’s not good for the...”
She pushed my hand away. “I ditched it, Mike,” she said, quite softly. She was looking down at the bar.
I took a quick swallow of my soda. “Sorry? I didn’t quite get that,” I said.
“I said I ditched it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “There’s no baby anymore.”
“That’s just an expression. It was all done very safely, I assure you. And Jonathon was with me.” She nodded in the direction of the skinny man by the jukebox.
“But your belly…your stomach, I mean, it’s…”
“That’s just the residuals. And all the beer, I reckon.”
“I see. When… when did you have the… the procedure?” I asked.
“Three weeks ago. It was the very latest I could wait.”
“Wait for what? Not wait for me?”
“No. I mean before I had to make up my mind about it.”
“I see. Well, I guess that’s that, then.” I got up to go.
She grabbed the cuff of my jacket.
“Mike,” she said. “Didn’t I do what you wanted me to, then? Isn’t that what the money was for?” For a moment I thought that I would not be able to bear to look into her face.
“The money... Ah, the money... Well, the money doesn’t really matter. I have no feelings about money one way or the other. Forget it.” I gave her what must have been a very weak smile. “I’ll just be going, Mattie. I’ll see you.”
“Yeah. See you, Mike.”
I got lost on the drive home that night and ended up in a small hotel somewhere near Bristol. Putting the key in, I cursed my luck, for I had no bag, no change of clothes, no shaving kit, and I had thought that all I wanted was to go home and retreat to my bed. But by morning, I found that this was not so: I had merely forgotten that there was so much pleasure to be had in waking up on strange linens, somewhere I hadn’t been before, with the rain coming down outside.