And You Will Stand on Windswept Beaches

And you will be a warning to others. And you will be a cautionary tale. And you will be the before in the before and after pictures. And you will be terrified, most of the time, and like an idiot you will visit your fear and pain on everyone around you. And one day everything will finally fall apart in front of you and you won’t even realise that this is the best thing that could possible have happened. And you will trudge across snowy fields keeping your eyes out for rogue polar bears because you never know.

And you will conduct a searching inventory of yourself and your behaviour. This should be done over a period of weeks, in a place of calm contemplation. Mountain tops are ideal. Multi-storey car parks. Shopping centres. Whatever works. And you will be required, at some point, to undertake some sort of quest or pilgrimage. To fight with mythical beasts or retrieve a sacred object. And you will stand on the roofs of multi-storey car parks looking out across the city as the sun finally breaks out of the clouds, all your metaphorical dragons gone, and you will have no idea what else you are for.

And you will interrogate your sexual history, such as it is. And you will wonder what each of your partners were thinking at the time, and what they might think now, and whether or not, in fact, they even think of you at all these days. And you will imagine what you might have said or done differently, or asked about, or asked for. And you will not be sure whether or not you’re entirely comfortable with everything you ever did, or didn’t do. Or with what was done to you.

And you will build scale models of the alps in your back gardens, will build reconstructions of World War Two bunkers in your back gardens, will build churches out of corrugated iron in your back gardens. And you will attempt to drive across flooded fords on country roads in spite of the signs warning you to stop, in spite of the shouts of the bystanders, and your cars and vans will become inundated and stall and be carried away, and people will film you on their mobile phones as you float past, out toward the estuary and the treacherous, foaming seas beyond, your hands still on the wheel, you face staring grimly ahead.

And you will be thirteen again or fourteen again or fifteen again and you will be doomed to keep repeating your first sexual experience, to keep going back until you’ve got it right. And you won’t even know the criteria by which that rightness is being judged, or by who. And you will be ten years old – ten years old! – and you will walk through summer meadows at dawn holding hands with other boys, and dragonflies as big as sparrows will take off at your feet and wheel around your heads.

And you will wonder if you’re the bad guy. And this will upset you and possibly make you angry. This is a necessary part of the process. And quite possibly you are the bad guy. How would you know? Oh, but you’d know, wouldn’t you? And you will think this has all gone a bit too far, of course you will. You will want it to stop, now, as the floor disappears from beneath your feet. And you will consider your place in the world, and whether or not it came at the expense of someone else, and it almost always does.

And you will stumble, lost, in dark suburban forests and along the routes of old rivers, trying to find the way back home. And you will be chased out of other people’s back gardens and attacked by their dogs. And you will be chased off golf courses and out of allotments. And you will be chased away from outdoor swimming pools and children’s playgrounds. And you will wonder what your place is in the world, and what you mean, and for how long. And you will be caught in thunderstorms in the middle of vast, out-of-season caravan parks, and all the caravans will be locked up for winter and you will be unable to find shelter.

And you will fall in love again and again and not know what it means or what it’s for. And you will acquire a range of practical skills so that you can be of use and justify all the space you take up in the world. And you will define yourself by your ability to take a punch, or to operate a light aircraft, or to own a series of yachts. And you will lie awake at dawn, listening to birds singing, as you recount all your justifications to yourself, over and over again.

And you will get into fights at house parties and in car parks and at children’s football matches. You will get into fights during physics lectures, and on foreign holidays, and on the school run. You will get into fights at the get-together to celebrate your retirement, and at weddings, and during the births of your children and other peoples’ children, and while undergoing medical procedures and emergency surgery. And you will not know what you’re trying to prove or why you’re here.

“Do you know who I am?” you will shout at each other. “Do you know who I am?”

And no-one will know who you are. Least of all you.

And you will have ideas for great inventions that you will tell people about at parties but that you will never do anything about, and this will be everyone else’s fault, too. And you will think everyone else has it easy, in spite of all the evidence. And you will swim the English Chanel for charity, or hang glide across the English Chanel for charity, or water ski across the English Chanel for charity, or pedalo across the English Chanel for charity, and no-one will turn up.

And you will lose everyone you love to awful diseases, or old age, or ludicrous accidents. You will lose the people you love to falls from ladders, and collapsing warehouses, and forklift truck incidents, and food poisoning, and historical re-enactments, and murder, and explosive decompression, and shark attacks, and motorcycle jumps that went wrong, and wasp stings, and suicide.

And you will be an object of desire, at least once in your life, will be lusted after and revelled in – you, of all people! – by someone else. And they will glory in the shape of your calves, or your forearms, or the back of your neck, or your eyes; will be driven to sexy extremes, for a while, by the sight and smell and taste of you. And you’ll keep looking around, confused, thinking they’re talking about someone else.

And you will not tell other men you love them, or hear them say that they love you. And you will not trust your friends. But you will learn how to fit skirting boards, and how to hang a door and change a wheel, how to break a horse and tie fifteen different types of knot. And you will come to terms or not come to terms with fatal illnesses, and you will die all the same, eventually.

And you will stand on burning moorland, and on flagstone patios outside French doors, and on garden decking, and on the decks of listing super tankers, shielding your eyes against the smoke and the glare of the future. And you will be too old for that shirt, those shoes, that car, this girlfriend. And sometimes you will be too young.

And you will get lost in shopping centres and wonder about your relevance. And you will get lost in hospitals and wonder about your relevance. And you will get lost in foreign hotels and on foreign campsites and wonder about your relevance. And you will wonder what you are for, as you retreat from the world, and you will secretly fear that your only value now is in making sure the next generation doesn’t turn out like you did.

And you will not know what to do with what’s left of your desire. And you will not sail around the world, or go to the North Pole, or play football for your country, not now, not this late on. And you will briefly consider a career as a male escort. And you will make a friend of indignity, will be forced to embrace embarrassment and shame. You will beg for your life and for forgiveness in hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, and it will only be as much as you deserve. And you will have so much to answer for and no answers that anyone can use.

And you will get into fights in post-office queues and in supermarkets and in airport bars at seven in the morning. You will get into fights in barber shops and carpet warehouses and art galleries, on buses and trains and cross-channel ferries. You will get into fights in safari parks and restaurant kitchens, with younger men and older men and men in much better shape than you.

And you will lose your job, like everyone else, and have to accept whatever replacement work you can find, and be forced to beg for that too. At your age. And on your first day in the new job you will get into a fight on the shop floor, and everyone – staff, customers, random passers-by – will rush to watch you and the elderly security guard go at it in the Women’s Underwear section, will crowd around you chanting “Fight! Fight!” as you lay into each other, and it will not be all for nothing.

And your wives will leave you. All your many wives. Your complicated, troubling, magnificently pissed-off wives. And who can blame them. Your wives stuck at home in their Essex mansions. Your wives who are primary school teachers. Your astronaut wives, hurtling around the Earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour. Let’s be honest, they’ve stuck with you for far longer than you had any right to expect. And who are you to deny them the toned arms of Henry the tennis coach, of Lionel the yoga teacher and part-time paramedic, of Barry from down the pub? Who are you to deny them the chance to live their best lives, or just to explore their options, with glamorous Rachel from their book club? You are nobody, that’s who, and today is the first day of the rest of your life.

And you will watch your grown-up children sleeping from the tops of ladders outside their bedroom windows, and you will not be allowed inside their houses. Not anymore. Not for some time now. And you will fall down in pubs on rainy weekday afternoons, flailing around in your ridiculous, desperate rage, fall down or get knocked down by larger men who have had enough of this, and after a few months they’ll just take to propping you in the corner until you come round, and you will be considered a fixture.

And you will dream of retiring to a coastal town where the beaches are covered in oil, and where you will attempt to charm and romance ladies even older than yourself, you smoothie, you silver fox. And you will be moderately successful, and as a result you will inherit three bungalows that you don’t know what to do with. And you will cry in the middle of the night when you’ve had too much to drink and you can’t work out where your family have gone. Your entire family who you have alienated with your rage and inappropriate behaviour. Your rage that you don’t know what to do with. Your rage that you don’t know where to put. Your rage that is of no use to anyone.

And you will stand on windswept beaches, under gigantic skies, and you will possibly be still carrying your shopping, and there will be hundreds, thousands of men like you. All with shopping bags full of screws and glue and screen wash and brackets, two-in-one oil and watch-makers’ tools and driving gloves, their faces turned toward the west. And you will all put down your shopping bags and you will undress, never mind the cold, biting wind. You will take off your clothes and drop them onto the sand, your expensive suits or your smart casual weekend outfits, and you will avoid making eye contact as you all undress although you won’t be able to help looking, and as you finally all stand naked, tens of thousands of you by now, you’ll be surprised to see who is packing what. And, God help you, you will mentally rank everyone by size, and you’ll note how it’s never the ones you expect.

And you will stand in your tens of thousands, your hundreds of thousands, naked in the teeth of the arctic wind, the wind which isn’t doing anyone any favours today, and you will be revealed to be a wild and wonderful range of colours and shapes and sizes and ages. And some of you will have pieces missing, and others will have new bits which have been added, and some of you will be scarred and stitched up, and some of you will have beautiful new teeth and beautiful new hair, and some of you will look upon the teeth and hair and bodies of the others with envy, or a sense of shame, or desire. And some of you will just feel old, and some of you will be so young that you won’t even know how much you have and how much you have to lose.

And some of you will be weightlifters or competitive body builders or mixed martial artists, and people will gaze upon your ripped and pumped and cut bodies with fascination or horror, will feel confused or challenged or inspired by your achievements and the stringency of your training regimes. And some of you will just be too fat or too thin or too short or too tall, and people will gaze upon your bodies and judge them all the same.

And you will want so much to look tenderly on those other men’s bodies, some of which will have been repeatedly abused and beaten and interfered with, over the years. And you will also know that a significant proportion of those bodies have abused and beaten and interfered with others, and what are you supposed to do with that knowledge, and how would you know the difference? How should they be marked up, and judged, and documented? And what reparations should they be required to pay?

And there will be a light snow, then, falling in the half light, and resting on the shoulders of all those millions of naked male bodies, and you will be forced to huddle together for warmth. And out at sea some sort of ferry or cruise ship lit up like Christmas will lay anchor, and there will be tinny, solemn music drifting across the water as if from an old-fashioned gramophone. And on some imperceptible cue you will take to the sea on inflatables and airbeds against the manufacturer’s advice, will paddle out past the breakers on blow-up dolphins and giant sea turtles and unicorns, all the endless numbers of you cresting the waves as the night falls, all of you trying for that distant, shimmering, magnificent boat.


– End –

[This piece originally appeared as an exclusive for subscribers to the Influx Press Patreon. It was also performed at the Open Pen summer party.]