I meet him at improv class, which at twenty-three I think is exceptionally cool. I’m impressed by the fact I can tell my friends back home that his dad used to be on the television, or at least gets a writing credit at the end of my favourite eighties sitcom.
He takes me to a pub at the top of a hill in Bristol, one with a fashionable wood-burning pizza oven in the middle of the room that makes the air thick with acrid smoke.
We don’t eat, I’m too nervous. It’s a bad habit I’ve developed on dates that I don’t realise is a problem yet. With nothing to line my stomach, I get too drunk. But not tonight, because I’m driving home.
He doesn’t ask me much about myself, but tells me in great detail about his degree – History and English Literature, joint honours – and lists all of the poets he enjoys. He even quotes me some verse from an old notebook he keeps in the interior pocket of his waxed jacket. I’m flattered by this, and it all feels very romantic and strange. He says he doesn’t often share his own work with other people. I choose to imagine that’s true.
He asks me what music I like; I say, old. He says, so do you like the Beatles? Ha, I say, who doesn’t, I’d hate to hang out with that person. What’s your favourite song, he asks.
I sit back on my chair and say, hmm, that’s a tough one. I like the ones nobody else likes, the ones about broken relationships and madness. You’d expect girls to say ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but my favourite is ‘Norwegian Wood’.
You’re right, that’s a bit niche, he says. I like that about you, you’re surprising.
We finish our drinks and he asks me if I’d like to go back to his place for a bit, in the grand, old part of the city which houses most of the university. It’s a crisp autumn night and I’m enjoying his company, so I say yes. Plus, my car is outside the Student’s Union.
We walk along the row of shops towards the village and he stops dead. Hey, you hear that? He looks at me, wide-eyed, disbelieving.
I stop by tripping over a loose flagstone, and listen. No, I say, that’s ridiculous.
All that pizza oven smoke must be making us hallucinate, he says. There’s no way that’s what I think it is.
We press our ears against the glass door of the wine bar. A guitarist plays a slowed-down version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ to an audience of five or so, plus the two of us standing outside.
I can’t believe it, he says. What a coincidence. We look at each other, then, and I wonder if he’ll kiss me. He laughs and shakes his head. We keep walking.
Ivy-covered houses bear down on us, pale relics of colonialism curving around crescents and circuses. This one’s mine, he says, stopping outside a dark mansion with at least four floors. The woman who lives on the ground floor is such an old bitch, she’s always complaining about the noise.
He leads me up a huge flight of stairs onto the landing and I follow him into a small kitchen. Did you hear about that fresher girl who got raped? Walked home drunk and some local guys attacked her, dragged her down an alley or something.
The word has a sharpness and makes me flinch.
Yes, I saw it on Facebook. The SU put out an alert. The advice was stupid, they said the female students should avoid walking by themselves at night. That’s just victim blaming, if you ask me.
Ah, he says. It’s sensible advice, no?
What do you mean? I take the glass of tap water he offers me, wiping the soap scum off the rim with my sleeve which I hope he doesn’t notice.
Like, they said she was so drunk she could barely stand. She was stupid to wander off at night by herself in that state. He’s frowning now.
Surely the only thing causing sexual assault is the men who carry it out? I say, hoping I’m not coming across like too much of a feminist. I’m not sure if I’m one of those, yet.
I guess, he says. He sounds grumpy. I want him to be smiling again, I’ve made him uncomfortable. You sure you don’t want a glass of wine? He reaches into a high cupboard and I hear the clink of glass against glass.
I’m driving home, remember. Or would you rather I walk all the way back to Redland and risk being attacked?
He seems to think I’m making a joke, because he laughs. I badly want to change the subject. He pours himself a large drink.
We go into his room and his mood changes again. Hey, can you play guitar, he asks, or says.
I can, a bit. He hands me an expensive, vintage Stratocaster and plugs the lead into a large amp in the corner of his bedroom, turning up the main volume dial.
Won’t your neighbour get annoyed? It’s pretty late. We could just sit and listen to music instead, I say, eyeing a record player on the floor.
If you won’t play, I’ll show you something, if you like? He takes the guitar out of my hands before I can reply and plays a fairly easy riff, the sort of thing teenage boys play at house parties. It’s an anticlimax, but at least it isn’t Wonderwall, I think.
Are you into musicians?
I like creatives, I say. I like writers, artists. Comedians.
Comedians are often depressives. Do you know, my godfather is one of the most well-loved comics in the country, but he’s been on Prozac since the mid-seventies. Had complete mental breakdown about ten years ago but his publicist managed to keep it all out of the papers.
He continues playing the same four-bar riff over and over, raising his voice to a shout which only adds to the cacophony. I want him to turn it down, but I don’t know how to ask.
He’s pretty good-looking, I think. Quite delicate features, pale hair and high cheekbones. I wonder why he hasn’t tried anything yet, and cross one leg over the other after I sit down on the edge of the bed.
He keeps playing for a long time, and I start to wonder if I should leave. The situation is confusing, and I don’t have enough experience of this sort of thing to know what to do.
Hey, um, I might head off, I say.
What? He frowns, raising his chin.
I said, I might head off. Tonight was fun, we should hang out again soon.
Oh, sure. He puts the guitar down and the feedback vibrates in my eardrums like an itch.
He does kiss me, then. I feel myself lean into him and want to stay like this for a bit longer. He shows me to the door of the flat, and doesn’t ask for my number.