Tag Archives: country

All My Friends: Neil

I don’t function in the countryside. I’d felt myself tense up just driving over the Severn Bridge and seeing those rolling Welsh hills and valleys extend to the horizon. Well, I imagine there’d be rolling hills, great waves of grass spilling over itself, a dazzling emerald expanse, if I could have seen anything through the pissing rain that my one working wiper flapped ineffectually against. If there had been a way to cross the central reservation and hightail it back to a stale coffee and greasy fry up at Aust Services then I’d have done it. Why had Lizzie arranged this nostalgia freak show in the middle of nowhere? I’d just driven past Bristol and, presumably, several functioning bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. Everything, in short, required for a decent night out. The order sometimes varies. Finishing in the hotel rather than the hospital is optimal. I’ve never been to Bristol. It could have been fun. I’d even drink cider if it meant avoiding the onward trek into the wilderness. Is cider a Bristol thing? Or is that pasties? I try not to venture further west than Reading for precisely these reasons: the avoidance of hold-in-one-hand meals wrapped in pastry and alcohol distilled from apples bobbing around in some straw-chewing farmer’s barrel in a barn. But right then, squinting into the deluge plastering itself onto my windscreen, imagining the verdant fields beyond, I would have happily killed a kitten for the chance to bite into some stodgy mincemeat and sup on warm, flat scrumpy rather than keep going.

My first impressions of the cottage were not good. I didn’t really have a benchmark as cottages were another thing I’d deliberately avoided in my life along with tents, horses, farms, summer walks in meadows, autumnal tramps through drifting leaves in the woods, bluebells, campfires, and botanical gardens. I was yet to see a green space I couldn’t mentally improve with concrete, a Starbucks, and wi-fi. There was a purple flower climbing its way up the walls and framing the door that had prompted much delight in the others but which just looked like a drop in centre for drunken, drowsy wasps to me. I’d spotted at least two of the little bastards furiously headbutting a window as soon as I’d stepped inside. Later I learned that this mysterious plant was called wisteria but not before mis-hearing Lizzie and spending a few confused minutes wondering why she was quite so enthusiastic about having contracted listeria. Cue, inevitably, general hysteria.

My first impressions of the others were not good either. This was the second time they’d all made a first impression on me and at least they were consistently disappointing. That first first time, back when nobody was reflexively sucking in their stomach every time someone pulled a camera and everybody’s imagination still outstripped their income, I’d only really been impressed with Richard. He’d always had a confidence about him which I’d mistaken as an acceptance of himself and being a grown up when the rest of us were still kids. It wasn’t until later that I realised he was just a bit of an arrogant arsehole with an inflated sense of entitlement. Therefore, given my track record on first impressions, I wasn’t reading too much into my initial deflation this time around but, seeing them, listening to what they’d done and filling in the blanks on what they hadn’t, I couldn’t help but see my own failures reflected back. I wasn’t the person they had known but I wasn’t sure I was quite the person I’d wanted to be either.

I’d gravitated to Jon as the evening progressed. It wasn’t like I’d planned it but it didn’t surprise me either. If he remembered that night I tried to kiss him then he didn’t bring it up and I could tell from the way his eyes still tracked Clare around the room that not only was he still playing for the wrong side but that he was also still playing out of his league. I think I wanted to tell him that he was important to me but I wasn’t good at sincerity at the best of times and least of all removed from my urban comforts. I don’t mean that I still had feelings for him but I wanted to tell him that his rebuffal was the turning point for me; it was when I realised who I was and felt good about it. The details are a little hazy – tequila will do that – but I do remember him not being a dick about it. Just a kind, gentle even, letting down and then we sat round listening to records until I crashed out on his floor. I don’t tell him any of this. We just talk about some songs like we used to.

As the night started to find its natural end my need for a smoke finally became more urgent than my aversion to being outside. I figured the wasps were probably asleep but I didn’t really want to find out if you could fight off a badger by stubbing it in the eye with a lighted cig. The insistent nicotine nudge was too persuasive. I convinced myself that the same farmer that I wouldn’t be buying cider from anytime soon had probably killed all the local badgers to stop them spreading TB or something. I accept I’m not going to be offered the gig when David Attenborough goes. I know more about Country & Western than I do about the country. What I mainly know is that I don’t like either of them.

I avoided being bitten in the ankle (or throat – maybe they can jump?) by any of the myriad of woodland creatures running rampant in my mind and settled down on the sofa. Jon was still up, playing Astral Weeks now, but I recognised his look, even after all this time. Van was going to give him solace that I couldn’t. If he could hear Richard and Clare shagging through the floor above then he wasn’t letting on. Luckily for him it didn’t seem to last all that long. I flicked on the TV, turned the volume right down, and flicked the channels until I found something to look at that reminded me of civilisation. I don’t even know what it was but it wasn’t green. Tomorrow I’d drive back to Bristol and spend the rest of the weekend in bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. I fell asleep wondering why the hell you had to pay a toll on the Severn Bridge going west but grateful, at least, that I could escape home for free.

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Just Write: Week 7, 10th March – part 1

Another snappy title… but I haven’t thought of anything pithy to replace it yet. Next term, next term. It’s hardly as if this site is optimised for search anyway…

Have divided week 7 of the writing class into two as there was a fair amount of writing. Part one then covers the homework from last time; writing trigger was simply “No”, he said. Again we were supposed to write early in the week and edit later. Again there was a reasonable amount of the former and relatively little of the latter. I did, however, find that what I’d written fitted together with something else that I had from a few months ago and both pieces spend some more time with Emily, whom we met a couple of posts ago. She’s in there somewhere although I’m still not sure she’s coming out quite the way she is in my head. Anyway, feedback and comments very welcome as this may – may – be part of a bigger piece eventually. Here ’tis:

“No”, he said. He always said no and she’d almost given up asking.

“Come on Wil, why can’t we just try it ? It’s only one song.”

“We don’t play country music Em. I don’t know how many times we have to go through this. It’s not what we’re about.”

“It’s not country Wil” she half heartedly protested. “I’d say it’s more Americana.”

“Americana ?” he sneered back. “That’s what you have at Starbucks isn’t it ?”. He grinned smugly at his own joke and, not for the first time in recent months, Emily wanted to slap him.

“So what are we about then ?” she said instead, pretending to ignore his ridiculous pun.

The smile vanished from Wil’s face immediately; there was nothing he took more seriously than the band. Emily couldn’t decide if he was more annoying when he was trying to be funny or when he was deadly serious.

“Suburban alienation” he declared solemnly.

Emily strongly suspected that the most suburban alienation he’d ever experienced had been when the guy in Tesco Express had taken one look at his fake ID and refused to sell him a bottle of Strongbow but she played along.

“Alienation ?”

“Yeah, alienation. In the suburbs.”

“The suburban bit is important ?” she enquired, tilting her head, bemused. He mistook it for a doe eyed expression of puzzlement and genuine interest.

“Oh god yeah. It’s like everyone in this town is sleeping, not really alive. I don’t belong here Em, I belong in the city but I’m trapped. That’s why I had to start the band, to try to wake everyone up from their sad and cosy lives.”

In ten minutes he would actually belong in double chemistry but Emily resisted the temptation to remind him.

“I’m not destined for Leighton Buzzard” he finished, moodily staring into the middle distance.

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Emily decided to try one last time. “Let’s do a Whiskeytown song. It’s about escape. They’re all about escape those songs…”

“Did The Clash sing country ?” he asked

“I guess not” she sighed. “But they did embrace a lot of styles…”

“We’re not doing it Em. MK Ultra will never be some hillbilly country hick band”.

…… 

“Play something !”

The shout came from someone at the bar, a regular maybe. The crowd were impatient now, sensing that the band perhaps weren’t about to usher in “a rock and roll liberation from comfortable suburban mediocrity” as the posters outside the pub proclaimed. Emily looked out at the audience and wasn’t convinced that they wanted liberating anyway; there were only five people there and she had a sense that the only mediocrity on offer was currently being served up by the band.

“Play something !” hissed a voice to her left. It was Wil, singer and guitarist in MK Ultra. The name had been his idea (“MK Ultra, like the FBI mind control experiments, like extreme Milton Keynes”) but he’d even got that wrong, she thought, it was the CIA not the FBI. The posters had been his idea too – emblazoned with “wake up Milton Keynes” across the top above a picture of Che Guevera, that suburban mediocrity quote running across the bottom. Emily remembered him picking them up from a local printers (“they need to look professional”) and then helping him add the band’s name by hand; he’d forgotten to include it.

Wil was crouched on his haunches trying to untangle a broken string from his guitar. They’d been half way through a cover of the Manics’ “If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next” which Wil had sarcastically dedicated to the educational establishment of the Greater Bucks area, before his top E string had snapped, bringing the song lurching to a halt.

“We can’t play anything” Emily hissed back. “What are we going to do with just bass and drums ?” She was the band’s reluctant bassist as Wil had insisted that she couldn’t play guitar and she had gone along with it, content to stay out of the spotlight. The five members of the audience had turned their attention back to the bar, a couple of them talking amongst themselves. One of them finished up his pint and began to pull on a coat.

“Come on Em, do something” muttered Wil, briefly looking up from his unsuccessful attempts to re-string. He looked desperate. Playing in Milton Keynes had been a big deal for him. Besides none of the pubs in Leighton Buzzard would let them play anymore.

“I only know country songs, remember ?”

Wil frowned but recognised that the tangle of guitar string that had now managed to wrap itself around his wrist was going to take a while to sort out.

“About escape, yeah ?”

“Yes”, she said, her heart suddenly accelerating. He gestured with his head towards his acoustic guitar propped up beside his amp.

“Just don’t introduce it, okay ?” he said. Then added, “or, if you do, then say it’s Americana.”