Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.
When Rich met Jerome after Christmas in arrivals at Manchester airport to give him a lift home Jerome was confused when Rich joked, ‘You’ll have to shoulder in the front door,’ Rich was referring to all Christmas cards piled up inside Jerome’s one bedroom flat. Jerome thought Rich was being sarcastic, then felt bad when he realised Rich was loosely clothing sincerity in a joke. But Rich had a second wife and young child. He no longer cared about the reassurances that came with greeting cards and random gestures like emails and texts from friends asking how you’re doing.
Jerome still got excited when his mobile vibrated with a text message. This vexed him, especially since the only regular texts Jerome got were from Orange, his mobile provider. It was as if the buzzing in his pocket summoned a vestige of childhood elation from receiving mail. And it was never mail intended for him – biannual bricks, of irrelevant A4 financial reports from mining companies addressed to Jerome because of shares his dad invested in his name. But he was allowed to open them, which made him feel special, and at that age there was simplicity in assigning weight to importance, both with mail and presents.
This subtle sense of abjection was further compounded when Jerome realised how rarely he topped his phone up with credit because he couldn’t afford to – and how little this affected him. He wondered if a phone without credit was a modern vagabond’s equivalent of not having shoelaces.
Jerome also never received cards or impromptu telephone calls. He only got birthday and Christmas cards from his family. He’d never received a Valentine. And only once was given flowers from a girl who shared the same birthday has him. But Jerome decided it didn’t count since she was infatuated, and trying to sleep with his best mate Dave, who he was living with at the time on Clyde Road. When Rich dropped Jerome off at his flat on Northern Grove there was a single Christmas card lying on the cold entrance hallway from the Young Liberal Party.
It didn’t bother Jerome that he didn’t have a girlfriend. But he was thirty-three, and never had a girlfriend and that didn’t trouble him either – which recently started to worry him.
He guessed friends including Josephine talked behind his back, debating whether he was gay. But then people thought Tim Burton and his wife Helena Bohnam Carter were weird because they lived in separate houses yoked together by a third property where the kids and a carer lived. It made complete sense to Jerome. But he could never shake the smell of tinned pea and ham soup when Helena Bohnam Carter’s name was mentioned. And Jerome hated pea and ham soup so he preferred not to think about them. What the fuck did they care anyway. They were rich and successful. Jerome listed three considerations preventing him acting with similar flair and silencing all the other fuckers out there who criticise.
i) No wife
ii) Not rich enough to buy three houses next to each other
iii) Inherent trust (and Jerome put that at a distance from the much more pertinent aforementioned factors)
Jerome felt at home in the distance travelling between places. But he was stuck in Manchester where he made a promise; this was his year, to do something, be someone. Consequently he was unemployed and broke and a nobody. A symptom to all this was drinking a lot of alcohol. The added benefit was Jerome slept soundly. Otherwise he had trouble sleeping and drank two to three cups of Yoga herbal tea before bed which made him dream like a motherfucker.
Last time Josephine and Jerome spoke she said she was worried Jerome was drinking too much. Jerome told Josephine to fuck off because she drank too much. It was the same irrational hypocrisy that Jerome’s mum greeted him with when he returned home – sunlit watching crap English murder mysteries on cable while draining a whole bottle of Seaview sparkling wine. Jerome was already constantly worried he drank too much. But Jerome determined despite his consumption it was a healthy perspective, like a sane man fretting he is descending into madness. He did however concede this style of reasoning invited fallacy.
He was smoking too much – though not as much as smokers do cos he didn’t consider himself a smoker. He thought about the art nouveau girl with scarlet lipstick in the local bar who called him ‘Staropramen Man.’
‘Jerome is simpler,’ he said, ‘if you like brevity,’ and felt that they’d had now been introduced, even though she never offered her name in reply.
He sometimes debated if he should order green tea or ginger beer instead. He knew they sold Bundaberg – he was Australian. He could make conversation about it. He’d even been to Bundaberg – or at least Noosa. That was the birth place of Kirks, wasn’t it? Never mind. He’d tell her it was Bundaberg anyway. But she was always pre-emptive and pouring him a pint when he entered.
‘Only oceans stop you being the most beautiful girl,’ he once said to the art nouveau girl as she poured his pint and immediately felt stupid. But he didn’t know what was too much – West Didsbury? Manchester? England? Europe? or, the World? He faltered not wanting to stretch too far or reach too high with the compliment and blurted out ‘ocean’ instead.
She leaned forward and then back like she needed closer examination and said ‘You’re really weird,’ in way that made him feel better. He wasn’t sure why when he left he declared ‘We are in for a long winter,’ then ran away giggling.
Jerome didn’t tell Josephine on the phone that although the reasons might be divergent, certainly the inception for Jerome’s third pint and severing his internet accounts and worldwide contacts was one in the same. And it walked into Folk at 6.58 pm.
When Martha walked into Folk, Jerome hadn’t seen her for over three years. They hooked up in Manchester, living on mixed olive starters, booze and rollies while Martha was back on summer break. He chased her down to Brighton, where she was studying cos she wanted him to. Then she fucked him – and not in a good way.
Nine years separated Jerome and Martha. Jerome had the conclusion in his rucksack – like all young girls she pretended not to know what she wanted, but could spot it exactly when it was presented to her. Jerome never wanted to know where he stood. He felt like old fox around Martha and could work it out well enough for himself. And as soon as he arrived in Brighton he knew there was another rooster in the hen house.
Jerome didn’t care. Okay that’s a lie. He just didn’t want to know. They agreed to that. Martha was out for herself and Jerome respected someone in pursuit of self fulfilment. She also wasn’t much for prolonging a moment. She wasn’t sentimental and Jerome liked that about her – it matcher her youth, south Manchester jest and sharp turn of tongue. Some chicks cling like hayseeds and smother like doleful pets – and Jerome didn’t want a pet.
She met him at the train station on a Friday afternoon. And that night they ended up by Brighton Pier throwing stone into a plastic pint pot. When she told him, ‘you’re always complaining in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re complaining,’ Jerome wondered if his writing kept too many good things to himself.
Martha liked to win and kept a rigorous mental scorecard of all her victories. Jerome could see her cheating – enjoying her own method as much as the result and easily ignoring, or remaining oblivious to that which she didn’t want to see. Jerome kept quiet and rolled another cigarette. He was moonlit on tequila and pineapple juice. He knew already he’d been trapped like a dumb insect – cornered and hapless and limp. And that’s when she strikes with words.
‘I’m sorry… I’m so tired at the moment.’
Jerome had been here before and it was all so inevitable and boring. He’d seen the conclusion way before it hit. But it was still a fine sting in the back – maybe she wasn’t lying and was too tired. That didn’t make him wrong either.
Martha dropped another pebble into the plastic beaker to chalk up another conquest.
‘You R loosing so badly.’
Jerome looked up the beach at the old Brighton Pier kneeling crushed and forsaken in the water’s lapping caress like valiant defeated soldier. He felt the mercurial glow of the red rock moon hung low over the pier suppurate the fever of his frustrations.
Jerome had a hotel room at the New Madeira Hotel on Marine Parade with an ocean view. He couldn’t afford it. He had just finished a contract and with money saved was about to go travelling again and find all those spaces between places. But they’d made a plan in Manchester to spend the weekend pretending to be rich and on holiday. And it’s a man’s prerogative to make such gestures with or without means.
It was more hollow that guilt that Martha offered to pay her share. Jerome knew she couldn’t afford it either. She was slumming it in halls of residence at the University of Sussex, having a ball spending all her dough on class A gravel.
Back at the hotel room she said, ‘Can we just be friends’ before rolling over to sleep. Then Jerome broke her cosmetic mirror. He didn’t mean to. He wasn’t particularly superstitious but immediately felt curse by it. He was half Catholic and half Protestant so he wasn’t religious either. But Jerome felt everyone had to believe in something. Even a nihilist finds life unfair sometimes and Jerome chose superstitions because they afforded simple comfort and easy solutions. He later regretted not burying the broken mirror it in the pebbles down at Brighton Pier, but he got too ripped to leave the room.
Jerome sat by the open window and stayed up late smoking a spliff and drinking El Dorado rum he carried in a hip flask down from Manchester. He’d been smoking a lot of weed lately. Maybe that was part of the problem. Jerome had never had sex completely sober and in no way felt incomplete about that. In the two weeks Martha was in Manchester they were both greedy to spend time together but had only fucked three times. Other mornings Jerome woke up on the couch with Martha in his bed claiming he passed out and she couldn’t wake him.
Jerome watched the jaundiced moon festering in the clouds. He felt like Kerouac listening to the quiet midnight swell crash through him in Big Sur. Jerome crawled into bed after four. Martha was plugged up, eye mask on, as was her way – sleeping like a cod.
Jerome woke late, fully dressed with the early summer heat of southern England a mild shock that made him slightly queasy. Brighton hosted its annual street festival the same weekend. Jerome still spent the weekend with Martha, diluted by a crowd of close friends and never without Hugo. She returned to halls or residence with a group early Sunday morning after a dub reggae night. Jerome sat on the pebbles down near Brighton Pier and smoked a spliff. When she hadn’t returned for checkout he was left with the indignant process of packing all her loose cosmetics, hair dryer and change of clothes into her daypack and leaving it at reception.
Martha was the blues to Jerome – and how he ended up writing Sister Mary.
In a letter Martha later admitted they only became a couple later. Jerome believed her but that didn’t diminish the bliss. He could still recall her gushing with delight every time she locked eyes with Hugo that weekend. She returned to Brighton in the afternoon and they said goodbye outside the station where they met. Martha wanted to see Jerome to the platform. Jerome was being churlish, but felt permitted to sling a few barbs. He told her not to bother and that she was probably keeping Hugo waiting. The barb bounced off the way it does with women when you aim for the middle ground. But a thin film of smugness still rose to comfort Jerome, which lingered briefly like a thin tannin before dissipating by the time he boarded the train.
Afterwards they briefly stayed in email contact while the need for apologies and regrets faded. And they remained silent Facebook friends out of some perverse stubbornness to be mature. Martha was the type of contact Jerome occasionally checked with a macabre curiosity to see if she’d suddenly been struck with the ugly and obesity sticks.
After spending a year and a half travelling he ran out of money. He sent her a message saying he was returning to Manchester when he noticed on Facebook she had moved back there after graduating from university. She never replied, which wasn’t surprising. In this case there was no need to invoke Rule # 03: Two-strikes-and-you’re-out.
It didn’t stop Jerome entertaining the possibility of randomly encountering Martha in West Didsbury. Given the narrow corridors of real estate where the young, hip elite lived in Manchester, Jerome appreciated it was a city prone to randomness. And in slender moments of reverie his imagination unfurled infinite outcomes. But he’d been back for seven months.
When Jerome looked up from his notebook it was 19.01. Martha was leaning over the bar relaying her order to Mr Kooltool Fuzzyhair. Jerome didn’t see her enter but service was deliberately relaxed in Folk. As instinctive as a woman, Jerome was certain she had surveyed the bar on entry and noticed him.
She conspicuously hung onto to the bar with her back to Jerome watching Mr Kooltool Fuzzyhair pour Sailor Jerry rum and ginger beer over ice. Appreciating that he had introduced Martha to Dark ‘n’ Stormys should have made Jerome smile. But he was deep in the conspiracy of feelings for Martha that began with a broken mirror.
It wasn’t the first time since being back in Manchester a Facebook friend had blanked him. Stella, a compact blood nut restaurant manager Jerome once hooked up with while working the same bar avoided him at the Woodstock on Sunday just gone. She was coupling with another couple – with a soft, hairy boyfriend type, grazing on roast drenching in gravy. But in this circumstance when combined, Jerome found the mild excommunication socially acceptable in old Blighty.
He watched Martha walk back outside and sit against the sharp shoulder provided by the entrance. Seeing her hands start to roll a cigarette from the only seat obfuscated from the entire inside gallery of tables and chairs Jerome felt an apostrophe illuminate above his head – an apostrophe he always felt, rather than an epiphany more accurately described the shape of sensation when a new idea or design of life paralysed his thoughts. Epiphany or apostrophe, he suddenly deemed three things to be true.
i. Martha was deliberately sitting in the one place that concealed her from him and therefore must have seen him.
ii. Fuck Martha. Fuck the internet. And fuck Facebook (which is when Jerome started going about erasing his internet friends and connective history)
iii. Based on the way he was feeling his body was about to get fucking punished.
At the same time Jerome belligerently ordered a third pint to invite the chance of unavoidable contact. A pleasant consequence was it complimented his Dutch courage. However girlfriends soon gathered and swept Martha into Rhubarb, a local restaurant next door.