Here at Cambridge station I find myself studying a girl. Most certainly upper-middle class, this girl. All wool and tweed and sensible loafers, their deep burgundy tan glowing richly against the dull asphalt outside the station; her fine, fair hair trembling in gentle submission to the damp autumn wind. There on the bus stop bench her wide, unfocused eyes gaze into a life that I dared not imagine in childhood life.
Social convention dictates that we should not envisage the curvature of the breasts, the arch of the back, the golden hairs adorning the pure, flawless skin of the thighs. It is the pale, delicate presence itself which we must ponder and the way the thick wool of the roll-neck sweater rests like a comforting pillow beneath the chin. We must dutifully acquiesce that we are witnessing an abstraction, the agreeable idea that this perfect, quintessentially English country girl is simply biding her time.
I had never allowed myself such absence of mind, such a drift from the reality of each moment. I had been rather like the brash young man on the train that had just brought me to this place called Cambridge: constantly aware of and adjusting for the other’s gaze with the conceited yet insecure self-consciousness of youth; the persistent shifting of the body belying an impatience with its confines and the presence of strangers with their silent, discomfiting inquisitiveness.
My own youth has long since passed. I can now only marvel at that which I would have once pursued without finesse, with blatant disregard for the fragility of the more gentle among us. I once would have been the narcissistic lout on the train, seeking a boorishly satisfying dominance over the perfection that I now so admired, then abandoning her to the same life, yet now more completely lacking in fulfillment.
As usual, a fleeting, noble, impossible and completely predictable thought: come with me and you will be spared such base indignities. But I see that she is leaving, quietly, wordlessly, unsmilingly stepping into an upper-middle class car driven by an upper-middle class father who will take her to their upper-middle class home.
It is at this precise point in time and at this precise location on my native British soil that I know with absolute certainty that nothing of substance awaits. Indeed, I have returned to England expecting and wanting nothing. A few days in London have proven to be less a final, nostalgic wandering through my birthplace than a validation of my disdain for Englishness, including my own. Ah, London; that fetid, festering depression between England’s bloated and pompous buttocks, a place only worth coming to if death is on the wish list, for leaving was all one could ever dream about in earlier years if there was ever to be some hope of a life.
Indeed, paradise had beckoned. But no matter how much I had followed the sun’s warmth and the possibility of a small place for me on earth, a place bathed in bright, primary colors, I had encountered little more than my own existence, twitching anxiously inside an impatiently shifting, unwanted body. London had stayed with me, like an ugly and feeble-minded companion who insists on following one everywhere, spoiling all chance of social success or a single, simple moment of tranquil solitude.
My resentment escalates. The girl with all her apparent privilege and status conferred by breeding and wealth knows all that I know at her impossibly tender age. There is nothing of substance for her to experience, no worthwhile knowledge to be gained, no contribution to be made for the benefit of humankind. She will acquire the simple skill to set cutlery in correct positions around porcelain plates at dinner parties and smile demurely when guests confirm her beauty with compulsory approbation. She will read all of England’s history, rewritten for the benefit of the ruling classes so that good citizens would not bristle at the horrors inflicted throughout the rapacious rise and inevitable fall of Empire. She will never wear leather and she’ll become a willing object of attraction to learned, conservative types with effete mannerisms designed to underscore what passes as wit in the realm of the privileged. She will, in time, marry some such rightist and will masturbate with great guilt in the presence of her imagined god while the sexually inept man of the house squanders the common wealth in the financial heart of The City of London.
She will neither know nor care that, for a few idle moments in her adolescent past she sat outside a station while a stranger again pondered the inevitability that salvation can never come to any of us.
I shall temper my resentment. It is no more her fault for being rich than it was mine for having been poor. A fearful street urchin from the slums has as much significance as a spoiled country girl from Cambridge—which is to say, no significance at all in the grand scheme of things. I knew that at Blackwall Stairs and beyond. In all those countries, cities and lush, tropical locations I experienced no salvation or revelation that I had arrived at my ideal destination simply because, to me, there could be no such thing if I were in it. I had become the hair in the soup, the stain on the sheets and the turd in the toilet bowl. I was what I always had been: a sad and suicidal child.