I

I was nine. My family lived on the southern boundary of the city. The land was low and flat, and behind our house there was a flood-meadow owned by the council. Beyond that there was a railway line, and then the open country.

In the autumn, in a small way, and then more drastically in January and February, the land would flood. Rain clouds broke over the low ridge of hills to the south and west of the city; the water drained down the valleys and pooled on the plain. The river rose, then broke its banks. The sluice gates would be opened. The flood-meadow would become a lake. The railway line was raised on ballast stone, and I don’t remember the trains ever being cancelled. When you pulled out, south, from the station, it was like you were gliding across a mirror on skates.

Adam’s family moved to the city from a village up on that ridgeway. They settled on my street, thirty-six houses along. There were four of them: Adam, his mother Claire, his sister Sam and his older brother Joe. Joe was in my class, and very quickly became my best friend. He was older than me; he had just turned ten. Adam was seven, and Sam was five.

Even when he first arrived Adam was tall, much taller than the rest of his class when they filed into the school hall for assembly. He loved animals: he had a hamster, a budgie, and two cats (Tigger and Marble). Later on he got a Jack Russell he called Japp, and from then on dogs became his great love and fascination. (I remember, years later, Adam sitting on the grass in our field, running his finger around Japp’s gum when he thought that a tooth was unsteady.) I had a birthday party one year, shortly after my guinea pig had died, and Adam gave me a card which my parents kept on their bookshelf. He wrote, ‘I am sorry to hear about Toffee. I know how you are feeling. My hamster died in April. I was sad and so unhappy.’

His parents were separated, and his father lived on a houseboat. The three children, Joe, Adam and Sam, went to stay there on alternate weekends. When they appeared on Monday morning – we walked to school together – their clothes smelled damp and sweet. My mum said it was nothing; it was just the smell of the river.

Because we lived in the watery part of the city (the low plain where the floodwater gathered), much of the land was undeveloped, laced with ponds, streams and water butts. At the end of the road there was a park, with a boating pond, a lake, and a lido. The lido, which was free to under-seventeens, was open from May to September. You got changed in little red cabins, not quite big enough for two people; from a hatch they served chips in polystyrene cones (the vinegar sank to the bottom and had to be drunk as a rancid shot); there were four showers where you could stand and soak and watch the raindrops beat down on the pool when it rained, or, when it was cold in the spring or the early morning, watch the steam rise from the bright blue water.

One night, when I was fifteen, I dreamed about Adam under those showers. It was evening, or late afternoon. The sun was low; the light was gold, slicing through the iron fence of the pool compound and splintering like the branches of a tree across the tiles of the shower area. There was nobody there except for Adam. He was naked and his skin was white, glowing in the sunlight, and the water was spilling down his bright, pale skin. From the concave stitch of his breastbone, his chest swelled in two shallow hills. The skin over his bicep and shoulder – newly swollen in the last two years – was stretched to the point of being see through. I saw the ridges of his abdominal muscles, slightly protruding, retreat, curving back below his naval to his flat, pale pelvis. I stepped towards him under the spray of the shower. Face to face, very close to him, I reached out and held my hand against his side, below his ribcage, at the point where his stomach met his hipbone.

I woke up, wet and disoriented. It was still dark; I was on my own. In the morning I woke again and remembered, afraid that the memory would escape me. I felt happy, warm and nervous, but they were the sweet nerves of excitement (or the febrile kind of sweetness which comes from sleeplessness, desire and disturbance). All day at school, I carried the memory like a precious secret, something only I had seen, and the more precious for being private.

A memory came back from a few years before, when a total eclipse was predicted and we had all bought safe-spectacles from the newsagent. Standing in the meadow, outside my back gate at noon, we stared up at the sun, watching the moon creep across it. Suddenly it was twilight – in midday, in the middle of June. The colours of the grass and of the trees and the sky changed. Then for a short time it was dark (not fully dark, like midnight in wintertime, but the washed-out summer absence-of-light, when late in the evening the sun has dropped below the horizon). There were two dogs in the field, Japp and a whippet called Nancy, and when the light changed they became agitated: yelping and running in confused, wide-eyed circles. Then inch by inch, as the moon passed on, the light returned to normal.

That night – after the dream – I was walking home across the field as I always did. The sun was low in the sky and the light was gold, casting long shadows like the ones I had dreamed about in my dream of the swimming pool. What reminded me of the eclipse was that for me, improbably, the light had been like this all day: when I woke up, and at noon, and at four o’clock, the same extraordinary light. And it was only at this one moment that other people could see it. It became dark within an hour, but for me, it was still twilight. It took many days, perhaps as long as a fortnight, for the light to return to its normal pattern.

 

II

They must have been there since the 1980s, when Portugal joined the European Union. But I only noticed how many Portuguese there were in our neighbourhood when they opened a Portuguese bar on the Abingdon Road. It was an A-road, and not a shopping street, and it could rain two-hundred days a year in our city, but with a set of red-plastic tables and chairs provided by a Portuguese lager company, they colonised the narrow pavement and spawned a tiny, Iberian cafe culture. On Sundays, after the Portuguese Mass at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Fatima, the cafe and the pavement were crowded from lunchtime until late in the evening. When Portugal won a football match, cars trailing flags and scarves would drive up and down that strip of road, thumping their horns late into the night.

Our neighbourhood, in a basin to the south of the city-centre, was separated from the rest of the city by the river. There were primary schools here but no secondary schools, so when you turned eleven you bought a bus pass or a bicycle and began to commute, crossing the river north in the morning and coming back south after school. Adam and I went to different secondary schools: he in the north-west, I in the north-east of the city. So my life, from this point, was divided into separate parts. In the daytime, north of the river, at school and with other people; in the evenings, south of the river, and if possible with Adam.

From very young I used to imagine that we lived in a private community. Prompted by mafia films, children’s books and half-articulated desires, over many years I established and added detail to this story. We were a sea people. Our original home was on the coast and in a different country. In Britain, there were settlements in seaside towns, in Cornwall, Wales, and the Highlands of Scotland. Our neighbourhood here, on the southern fringe of this inland city, was a commercial outpost or colony, and we went back to our real homes in the summer holidays and at Christmas. Because we were a sea people, we were famous swimmers and divers. That was why we lived on the floodplain by the lakes, and that was why we had built a lido, so that we wouldn’t dry out during our exile. We spoke our own language at home and among ourselves, or in other parts of the city, at school, when we didn’t want other people to understand us. At my school they taught Italian, and this was straight away my favourite subject. But when I became conscious of the Portuguese presence in our neighbourhood, I imagined that our own language was in fact more like theirs.

Now that we went to different schools, we saw each other mostly in the summer. In the winter it would be four or later by the time both of us were home. The pool was closed, and the meadow was dark. We were in different schools and different school years, and our friendship groups, though connected, were also different. Then, in the springtime, the afternoons distended. One morning – and it did seem to happen overnight – the bushes beside the meadow became green, and soon the grass, which had frozen down in the winter, became long and yellow with buttercups. In the same way, the first few afternoons in the meadow – cautiously approaching by the back gate, calling out to them through the window, then seeing them, Joe, Adam and Sam, filing out into their backyard to join me – in the same way, these first few afternoons, their appearance seemed like a miracle. One aspect of this was that I doubted it would come again: would we not be too old this year to lie around after school in the meadow? Each spring, when I first saw them appearing together at the gate, it seemed like this might be the last time, the last year that it would happen.

Sometimes there were evenings, doubly precious because so rare, when Joe would be playing his drums and Sam would be playing football, and Adam, when I called, would be alone watching TV, and would hear my voice and slide open the back door, and would appear at the back gate on his own. One night, I was in the field with Adam and we were throwing a miniature American football to each other, talking about the lyrics to ‘That’s the Way I Like It’ by KC and the Sunshine Band. Alex Sibley, from Big Brother 3, had mimed the song to the camera as he buttoned up his satin-gold shirt, and now, across England, he was being imitated by schoolchildren. I hadn’t known the song before and didn’t really know the words. ‘I think sex is one of the words,’ I said. ‘Or it’s about sex, anyway.’

Another time, a few years later, and most precious of all because it happened in winter: a heavy snowfall fell through the night and in the morning the schools were closed. Stepping out onto the blanketed meadow, I saw two figures in the white distance. Adam and a girl, who I realised was not his sister. By this time I was in sixth form, and self-conscious when I was with Adam. I walked up the field pretending there was somewhere I was going, feeling the virgin powder crunch under my feet, and hoping they would see me and stop me. I slowed my pace as I got near them, and perhaps they saw me hesitate. They ran towards me throwing snowballs. I saw that their faces were wet and red with snow.

The girl’s name was Amy. She was a friend of Adam’s from school. She had long, brown hair, in small curls (curlier when wet); she wore a blue duffel coat with red piping, blue woollen tights and skiing gloves. She became the first girl onto whom I transferred, or projected, what I felt about Adam. My picture of her standing with us on the railway bridge, looking back across the neighbourhood flooded white with snow (where, in the springtime, it would be flooded grey with water), is, I think, something I made up, and tacked on afterwards to the scene in the field. In a similar way, but not the same way, other boys became objects of fascination – Connor, Chris, Matthew, Robin – a string of younger brothers, shy and pale and barrel chested, between eighteen-months and two-years younger than me. I liked each of them with a seriousness which now makes me wonder if Adam really was the template, or if he was only the first.

Important to remember also the periods of abeyance, especially in the wintertime, when weeks and sometimes months would pass and I would not see Adam at all, or even think about him much. The light was ordinary, the days were short, my fantasies turned on girls and on our football team. (Heterosexuality inexorably approaching, how could I discourage her?). Then in March the sun would emerge for a weekend and for those days, prematurely, the grass would smell like summer. Or a dream would disturb the pattern of my thoughts, and I would see Adam in my mind and want to see him in person. For that weekend or that week, while the disturbance calmed, I would stay up late at night and imagine lying with him in the long grass, naked or semi-naked. In those exceptional warm nights, I knew that this intimacy was happiness, even if I knew it would pass, and even if I only imagined him.

The summer before I left home, I used to meet Adam at the swimming pool before school. The pool was crowded with older people swimming before work. The sky would be bright and blue, but the heat of the day would not yet have descended. Because the adults were hurrying on, we usually had the showers to ourselves. One day, standing closer than normal, my thigh touched his thigh through our swimming shorts. I felt the swelling of his quadriceps beneath the layers of slipping nylon, and an electric current ran through me as if a circuit had been activated. This old circuit, which had been partly dormant, connected to an earlier memory. It was warm and fizzy and sharp. Then he stepped away, and the current was broken.

 

III

A teacher at our school was trying to teach us about art. She was talking about the Beatles’ song, ‘All You Need is Love’. She said it was a good example of art because its meaning was in what happened, in the experience you had when you listened to it, not in the chorus or the title, or any single line you could quote from it.

The song begins with platitudes: ‘There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,’ and so on. At the centre of the song the mantra – ‘All you need is love’ – turns round and round. And then at the very end, when the lyrics are at their simplest, the words are drowned in a sea of other noises: trumpets, whoops, strings, old songs. Then the music fades out entirely.

Our teacher said, imagine that you’re up at night and you’ve had a revelation and something has become very clear, and a simple phrase has suddenly become luminous and comforting and meaningful. You’re repeating it again and again to get yourself to sleep – ‘All you need is love; Love is all you need’ – and its meaning seems to grow until it comprehends and makes sense of everything you’re worried about, and everything you’re worried about becomes resolved and clear as you whisper the phrase to yourself. Perhaps even as you say it, you can feel its power slipping away, or it seems like more of an effort to believe in than before. Then you go to sleep, and in the morning you can remember what you were saying, and it wasn’t mad or wrong, but you can’t get back to how you felt when you were whispering it. How exactly it seemed to clarify or explain things isn’t obvious to you now. It’s just a slogan. They’re just words. After a while you forget it.

That’s what the song was about, she said, that one particular experience. What’s special about the song, she said, isn’t the message in the chorus (as if no one else had ever said before that love is everything, that love is unique). What’s special about the song, she said, is that it shows how fragile things are, even things which at a certain point have seemed obvious and clear and important.

 

‘Glimpses of a totally different system’ is part of a longer sequence, ‘An Essay on the Transfiguration of Our Lord’.

Image © Petras Gagilas

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A Language of Figs