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A MONDAY MORNING AND MY DREAMS WERE INTERRUPTED AT SOME unearthly hour by the doorbell ringing with a shrill urgency that implied death, tragedy or a sudden, unexpected inheritance. It was none of those things (not yet anyway), it was Terri. It was only seven o'clock and it seemed likely therefore that rather than being up early she hadn't actually been to bed at all.
Small and thin, Terri was dressed, as usual, in the manner of a deranged Victorian governess. She had the pale pallor of a three-day-old corpse on her cheek and, despite the dark on the unlit stair, was wearing Wayfarer Ray-Bans.
Although I had opened the door, Terri's finger remained on the doorbell, as if she had been struck by rigor morris while pressing it. I forcibly removed the finger, almost having to break it in the process. She held out a hand, palm up, and said, `Give me your George Eliot essay,' her face as expressionless as an assassin's.
`Or what die?'
`Fuck off,' she said succinctly and lit up a cigarette in the manner of a film noir villainess. I shut the door on her and went back to bed and the warm, slack body of Bob with whom I lived in urban squalor in a festering tenement attic in Paton's Lane, former residence of Dundee's reviled yet noble-hearted poet, William Topaz McGonagall. Bob rolled over and muttered some of his usual sleep gibberish (`The leopard's going to miss the train!' `Got to find that radish,' and so on).
Bob, known by some people as `Magic Bob', but for reasons which were obscure and not basedon any sleight-of-hand on Bob's part, was in fact an unmagic Essex boy, Ilford born and bred, although when he remembered, he affected a monotonous, vaguely northern accent to give himself more credibility with his peers.
Like me, Bob was a student at Dundee University but said that if he had been in charge of the university he would have thrown himself out. He seldom handed in an essay and considered it a point of honour never to go to a lecture and instead lived the slow life of a nocturnal sloth, smoking dope, watching television and listening to Led Zeppelin on his headphones.
Bob had recently discovered that he was in his final year of university, he had already repeated second year twice a university record and for a long time had presumed that somehow he would remain a student for ever, a misconception that had only recently been cleared up. He was supposed to be studying for a joint degree in English and Philosophy. If people asked him what his degree was in he always said `Joints,' which he thought was a brilliant joke. Bob's sense of humour, such as it was, had been developed by the Goons and honed by The Monkees. Bob's screen hero was Mickey Dolenz, right back to Mickey's early days as Corky in Circus Boy.
Bob was an unreconstructed kind of person, his other hero was Fritz the Cat and he had a complete lack of interest in anything that involved a sustained attention span. Nor was he political in any way, despite the three unopened volumes of Das Kapital on his bookshelf which he never could explain, although he had a vague memory of joining a radical Marxist splinter group after seeing If at the cinema. He was prone to the usual obsessions and delusions of boys his age the Klingons, for example, were as real for Bob as the French or the Germans, more real certainly than, say, Luxemburgers.
The doorbell rang again, less insistently this time, and when I opened the door Terri was still there. `Let me in,' she said weakly. `I think I've got frostbite.'
Terri was a little mid-western princess, a cheerleader gone bad. She may have once had corn-fed kin back in the heartland (although it was easier to imagine her being hatched in the nest of a prehistoric bird) but in time they had all either died or abandoned her. Her father, an executive with Ford, had enrolled her in an English Quaker boarding-school during a brief secondment to Britain and had carelessly left her there on his return to Michigan.
Terri liked to keep her ethnic origins chameleon, sometimes hinting at Italian, sometimes pogrom-fleeing Russian, a touch of the Orient, a hint of the Hebrew. Only I knew the dull mongrel mix of Irish navvies, Dutch dairymen and Belgian coalminers who by mere genetic chance had given her the appearance of an exotic houri or a handmaiden of Poe. We were the best of friends, we were the worst of friends. We were the sisters we'd never had. I felt sorry for someone so at odds with the mainstream of humanity. Sometimes I wondered if my role in Terri's life wasn't to mediate between her and the living, like a vampire's assistant.
Although she hated staying in it, Terri did have her own ruffled lair in Cleghorn Street an unappealing cold-water flat that wasn't good for much other than storing her coffin of earth. In a rare fit of activity she had painted it purple throughout, a colour-scheme that did nothing to alleviate her own darkness. At least Terri, unlike myself, had worked out her future destiny she was going to marry a very old, very rich man and then `screw him to death'. She wouldn't be the first, but I doubted whether she would find a suitable candidate in Dundee.
I fumbled around in the dark for a candle. We were in the midst of a discontented winter of strikes and three-day weeks which meant there was no electricity this morning. If I had been capable of forethought, which I feared I never would be, I would have bought a torch by now. I would also have managed to acquire a Thermos flask. And a hot-water bottle. And batteries. I wondered how many three-day weeks it would take before civilization began to break down. Sooner for some than others, I supposed.
From the window I could see that across the water in Fife they had electricity. The houses of Newport and Wormit were studded with cheerful lights as more purposeful people than us embarked on their day. If it had been daylight we would have had a magnificent view of the rail bridge and its freight of trains, the black iron lacework curving lazily across a Tay that was sometimes silvery, often not, and which in today's dark dawnlight was like a ribbon of tar running past the city.
In the bedroom, Bob was still fast asleep. In these night-like days of hibernation his waking hours were even more severely curtailed than usual.
`The butterfly's got the cornflakes,' a sleepfaring Bob warned us in a loud voice.
`I don't know what you see in him,' Terri said.
`Neither do I,' I said gloomily.
It couldn't have been his looks that attracted me, as Bob looked much like everyone else did the Zapata moustache, the gold hoop earring, the greasy Royalist locks curling over badly deported shoulders. He looked, if anything, like a tramp an impression reinforced by the second-hand army boots and the oversized air-force greatcoat he habitually wore.
Bob had recently discovered the meaning of life, a discovery that seemed to have made no difference whatsoever to his everyday existence.
I met Bob the first week I was at university. I was already eighteen years old and thought that I could discern a certain librarian caste to my features and was afraid I would end up a lonely figure, forever wandering a spinster wasteland, and it was mere chance that Bob was the first person to cross my path the morning I decided to lose my virginity.
I met him when he ran me over. Bob was on a bicycle and I was on a pavement, which perhaps gives an indication of whose fault the accident was. I broke my wrist (or rather, Bob broke my wrist), and the exciting combination of circumstances drama, blood and a brown-eyed man all served to make me think that destiny had spoken and therefore I should listen.
Bob hit me because he swerved to miss a dog. The man who would sooner run over a woman than a dog introduced himself by bending over me where I lay on the pavement, staring at me in amazement, as if he'd never seen a woman before, and saying, `Wow, what a bummer.'
The dog came out of the accident unscathed, if a little surprised, and was returned to its tearful owner. Bob rode to the Dundee Royal Infirmary in the ambulance with me and had to be physically stopped from inhaling the gas and air.
Terri had finally taken her sunglasses off after tripping over Bob's boots left carelessly in the middle of the floor. There were many drawbacks to living with Bob, not the least of which was the way he created a mysterious amount of self-replicating debris that constantly threatened to engulf him.
With no power and the cupboard bare, we had to imagine breakfast. Hot chocolate and cinnamon toast for Terri, while I preferred Braithwaites' `Household' blend tea with one of Cuthbert's wellfired white rolls, its outside crisp and blackened, its inside filled with doughy white air. We remained hungry, however, for you cannot really eat your own words.
`Well, at least being up at this hour means we'll make it to Archie's tutorial on time for once,' I said, without any great enthusiasm, but when I looked at Terri closely I realized she had fallen asleep. She should take more care, she had just the kind of sluggish metabolism that gets people buried alive in family crypts and glass coffins. In some ways (but not in others) Terri would have made the perfect wife for Bob they could have simply slept their way through married life. Rip van Winkle and Duchess Anaesthesia, the lost, sleepy daughter of the Romanovs.
I gave her a little pinch and said, `You know you shouldn't' but then I came under the sleep spell as well.
Sometimes I wondered if we weren't all unwittingly taking part in drug trials being conducted covertly by a pharmaceutical company, perhaps for a drug with the opposite effects of speed. They could just call it Slow when it hit the market. Perhaps that was who was watching me an undercover research assistant observing `the effects of Slow on his unsuspecting guinea-pig. Because I was sure someone was watching me. (`Well, you know what they say,' Bob said, in what I think was a misguided effort to comfort me, `just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get you.')
For several days now I had been aware of the unseen eyes on me, of the inaudible feet dogging my every footstep. I hoped it was merely the projection of a heated imagination rather than the beginnings of some paranoid delusional breakdown that would end on a locked ward in Lift, the village where the local mental hospital was located. (`Take more drugs,' was the advice of Bob's best friend, Shug.)
I woke up with a jolt. My head had been pillowed uncomfortably on the edge of Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the book had left a painful gouge in my cheek. Terri was making little whimpering noises, dreaming about chasing rabbits again.
I shook her awake, `Come on, we're going to be late.'
My new resolution, rather late in my final year I realized, was to attend all the lectures, tutorials and seminars that I was supposed to. This was in a vain bid to curry favour with as many of the English department staff as possible because I was now so behind with my work that it was becoming increasingly unlikely that I would even be able to sit my degree, let alone pass it. I didn't understand how I'd got so behind with everything, especially when I was trying so hard to keep up.
Terri was even more behind than I was, if that was possible. The George Eliot essay (`Middlemarch is a treasure house of detail, but an indifferent whole.' Can Middlemarch be defended against this criticism by Henry James?) was just one of the many pieces of work that we hadn't managed to do.
I dressed as if for a polar expedition in as many clothes as I could find woollen tights, a long needlecord pinafore dress, several reject men's golfing sweaters that had been acquired in a St Andrews Woollen Mill sale, scarf, gloves, knitted hat, and, lastly, an old beaver coat, bought for ten shillings in the pawn shop at the West. Port, a coat that still had a comforting old lady smell of camphor and violet cachous about it.
`Ontological proof,' Bob shouted mysteriously in his sleep a concept he wouldn't even know the meaning of if he was awake.
Terri grimaced and replaced her sunglasses and pulled on a black beret so that now she looked like a deranged governess engaged in guerrilla warfare. A Weathergirl.
`Let's do it,' she said, and we slipped out into the shock of a morning that crackled with cold so that every time we spoke our breath came out in cold white clouds like the speech bubbles in the Beano. We trudged up Paton's Lane and as we turned onto the Perth Road, the invisible, ever-watchful pair of eyes monitored our progress.
`Maybe it's the eye of God,' Terri said. I was sure God, if he existed at all, which was highly unlikely, would have better things to do with his time than watch me.
`Maybe he doesn't,' Terri said. `Maybe he's like a really ... trivial guy. Who knows?' Who indeed.