The first person I was in love with was called Mark Lyle. I was ten, and a day-boy at a pious little prep-school I could walk to on the edge of town. Mark Lyle was perhaps three years older – too old to be a friend to kids like me but equally too young to be acknowledged by my sixteen-year-old brother Charlie and his set. He occupied a fascinating limbo; his voice had broken, in my eyes he was a man already, but clearly not a man in the full self-important way that Charlie was. When he left my school, his parents couldn’t afford to send him on to Stonewell, and he became a kind of outlaw figure in my mind, whom one might expect to find living under canvas in a dell on the Common. In fact his father was an epileptic who had lost his job, but to me it seemed that some dark, perhaps ancestral secret had exerted its pull. Ancestry was much in my mind at the time; I was at work on my first book, The Manners Family of Kent, fed with boastful anecdotes by my great-aunt Connie and rather more disillusioned sidelights from my Uncle Wilfred, sometimes quite hard to understand. I described how the glory of a family grew, until it was crowned with genius like my father’s, who sang on the wireless and was likely to get a knighthood. Seen in this perspective Mark Lyle’s family clearly suffered from some critical defect. It even seemed possible that Mark Lyle was a dropout, something of which there was a lot of talk at the time.
One or two of the older boys heard from him after he’d moved to the comprehensive, and bragged discreetly about the contact. Occasionally I would see him myself in the town and watch him with the considerate pretence of indifference that one accords to the truly famous. I was anxious about his new friends, giants of fourteen or fifteen with fluffy upper lips, waiting at the bus-stop with ties undone and shirts bagging out and a No.6 on the go; like them Mark Lyle was growing his hair in thick dirty bunches swept behind the ears, and this seemed to me both wrong and beautiful.
Late one afternoon I saw him walking past our house, and ran out and followed him. I had shorts and sandals on – one didn’t go into long trousers till the sixth form – and he had his black blazer hooked on a finger over his shoulder. I wasn’t close to him, but still as I walked along I found myself in a heady slipstream of Old Spice. He must have been drenched in it, perhaps he was addicted to it in some way. Ours was a dourly Palmolive household, in which none of the males used talcs or colognes, and I found it intoxicating that Mark Lyle should be so sweetly and knowingly scented. I trailed him down the hill, having to stop and dawdle from time to time to prevent myself from excitedly catching up with him. He was clearly in no hurry to get home, wherever that might be. I wanted him to do something definite – meet a friend, enter a shop or a house – so that I would have something on him, and could go back home and ponder it in the context of my other, patchy, research.
I’d imagined he would turn left into one of the residential streets lined with flowering cherries where some of my schoolfriends lived, but he ambled odorously on until we had come in view of the Flats and I began to get worried. The front range of the Flats was built above a row of shops – a ladies’ hairdressers, a newsagent, the dry-cleaners where I took my father’s concert tails, the Indian grocers that stayed open till eight o’clock – and overlooked a broad oily forecourt, where residents worked sporadically on cars with long-expired tax-discs. But beyond that it was unknown territory to me. The Sharps and Flats my father called the place, as if we lived in the cloudless naturals of life. I don’t think I was actually forbidden to pass through into the grassy courtyard or even to enter those long white buildings with corroding metal windows. It must have been a self-imposed prohibition, a social fear that was activated again when I understood that Mark Lyle’s parents had now been reduced to a council flat.
That summer holidays I got serious about Mark Lyle. In my fantasy he became my protector, and introduced me into the thieves’ kitchen of the Flats as someone to be respected or they’d have to answer to him. At the same time I was to have a redemptive effect on him, leading him back to the life of virtue and culture from which fate had deflected him. I would often ask insouciant questions about him, and my brother would say, ‘What are you always going on about Mark Lyle for, stupid?’ and my mother would say, ‘That poor family, I don’t know . . .’ She was inclined to charity work, but they seemed not quite to qualify. I imagined going down there with her, taking blankets, and meals under tinfoil.
A lot of the day I was out on the Common. It was harmless and healthy, and though I’d overheard remarks about leathery old Colonel Palgrave, who sunbathed up by the woods with nothing on, I never had a sense of danger. Sometimes I tagged along unwelcomely with Charlie and his friends as they stumbled round complaining and calling things bummers; often I played out complex romantic games on my own, or dared myself to clamber up trees, giving instructions to imaginary followers. Once or twice I stumped round on the edge of a group that included Mark Lyle, ready to drift off if they got threatening. We had a huge, friendly dog at the time, who ran away at once if I let him off the lead, but who was a useful means of meeting people. I was embarrassed to tell boys from the Flats that he was called Sibelius, and pretended ingeniously that his name was Bach, which led to one or two jokes but by no means eased the problems of discipline. I became increasingly excited when I saw Mark Lyle, and my early troubles of manhood about that time took him as their object and even as their cause.
One day he was up by the pond with some other boys and a couple of girls. They were trying to fly a kite in the intermittent breeze, but after a few dips and a few spoolings-out of the thread it would smack to earth. Then the thread got snagged in a sapling pine, and the others suddenly lost interest in the whole idea of kite-flying and sloped off. With heart thumping, and not knowing what to say, I came forward and started to disentangle the cotton line from the little tree. Mark Lyle looked at me and didn’t say anything either. We worked it clumsily free, managing to ravel up the rest of it in a series of loops that tugged into knots as we tried to pull them straight. Still not speaking except in grunts of concentration and annoyance we bundled the whole lot up and went off to the bench to work on it.
‘This is a fucking game,’ said Mark Lyle after a bit. It was fantastic to be spoken to like that. I perched there in the swirl of his swear-word and his Old Spice, looking into a new life of almost frightening pleasure. I glanced at him shyly; his shirt was half-unbuttoned and I could see a brown nipple as he leant forward. Sometimes our hands touched as we rolled the cleared thread on to the plastic reel.
‘That Dave Dobbs is a fucking cunt,’ he said.
‘He is a fucking cunt,’ I agreed, and Mark Lyle gave a big bright laugh. He had a wide sun-browned face and a large mouth with one or two spots by it that he should have left alone. When we’d more or less finished, he patted his thigh and asked me if I wanted a cigarette. I blushed and said no.
‘Mind if I do?’ he said, with surely unnecessary courtesy. Actually I was terribly worried about him meeting an early death from lung cancer; but I was overcome by the glamour and intimacy of the occasion. I watched him raptly as he smoked an Embassy to the filter. Each frown, each wincing inhalation, the way he balanced the smoke between his open lips and then as it escaped drew it back up his nose, the two or three different fingerings he essayed, all were written on my mind like a first exercise in sexual attraction. I thought Mark Lyle was the most handsome man I had ever seen.
Later that summer I saw him again. The friendship I had envisaged had not blossomed. Indeed, he’d vanished altogether for about three weeks, leaving me full of forlorn agitation. Then one evening I was rambling homewards from the far side of the Common through the long dry grass when I saw his unmistakable mane of fair hair. He was sitting on a seat with his back to me, and I dithered for several minutes just a few yards behind him. He wasn’t aware there was anyone there. Occasionally he lifted what looked like a beer-can to his lips. I looped round and came back in front, pretending to notice him at the last moment. Following our convention I said nothing but sat down beside him and waited.
He can only have been fourteen, but he was managing to grow real side-burns, a more gingery colour than the rest of his hair. He was wearing a Cream on Tour T-shirt and tight, high-waisted shiny brown trousers with generous flares. You could see the stub of his cock very clearly.
‘I wondered if you’d been flying that kite again?’ I said at length. ‘I should think it’s a jolly good one.’
Mark Lyle tilted the last of the beer into his mouth, swilled it round and swallowed it, then belched so that I could smell it. He seemed to have forgotten about the Old Spice. ‘I’m fucking pissed, man,’ he said, and dropping the can on the ground stamped on it violently two or three times. Again the conflict of excitement and distress. In a way this was the opportunity I needed to put my redemptive impulse into operation, but when it came to it I wasn’t at all sure of myself.
It was one of my mother’s phrases I used: ‘There can’t be any need for that.’
He looked ahead and laughed mirthlessly. ‘Yeah, fuck off now, there’s a good little fucker.’
Tears came to my eyes; I wanted to blurt out, ‘No, no, I love you, I love you, I didn’t mean that, don’t say that.’ But he got up and stumbled away. I couldn’t watch him. I sat picking at the edge of the bench with a thumbnail. I let ten minutes go past, calming myself only to be shot through again with the awful words of rejection. I tried to sound out the note of merely friendly exasperation in them, but it was soured every time by the fierceness of the rest. I thought, no one should be spoken to like that.
Then I leapt up and ran the last few hundred yards to home.
‘Sharps and Flats’ is taken from The Folding Star, published by Chatto & Windus (1994).