I have no idea why Tanner tried to befriend me. Perhaps only to torment me, to “moither” me as we used to say, which means to suffocate someone, to kill with attention. But anyway, this is what he tried to do. He came knocking at the door, asking if I wanted to play out, or “laik out”, as we said then, or asking if I wanted to listen to an album he’d bought by Whitesnake, and so on. I didn’t want to do these things. He showed me a lighter he’d obtained. A golden lighter, like contraband, or a talisman of delinquency. I told my father, who asked where he’d gotten the lighter, what he was doing with it, why I was hanging round with him. I said I wanted nothing to do with him, but that he was a “scary character,” a phrase I’d read in a book. Tanner asked me if I’d “go with Mandy Simpson” because she “fancied me”, but I had no interest in Mandy Simpson, the world of which she was part, a world of gangs gathered in the cold air under the concrete bridge, spitting on the floor and smoking, of denim jackets embroidered with band names and smelling of patchouli oil, of mouths moving and clacking with chewing gum, of loitering by the “chippy” and the off-licence, of big plastic bottles of sweet cheap cider: Tanner’s world. I wanted nothing to do with any of this.
My intuition, although I had no proof at this stage, nothing tangible, was that there had to be other worlds and different kinds of people. This was my thin hope, my pale light under the door. Where it was, how I might get to it, and who would show me, I didn’t know. I knew nothing, then, of the thunder over Amalfi, of booksellers on the banks of the Seine, of the beers of Prague sipped in secret taverns, of silent walks by the Cherwell at daybreak, nothing of the reassuring existence of Italy, of white clouds tumbling over the dark cliffs of Thera, of a skeletal Beckett glimpsed in the Place des Vosges, of that late night cafe on the Rue Mouffetard, its tables round as planets, of the wild cats of Greece lying patiently under the table, the chirp of cicadas on the dry hillsides; I knew nothing, then, of mizzle and burning turf in quiet County Sligo; nothing of poetry or love, in fact, and nor did I have a pantheon of poets and writers to help me or converse with. I did not have this very language in which I speak and write, made out of books and blood and compost, part armour plating, part conducting rod for rage and beauty, this language with which I rendered extinct my earlier incarnations. I had instead, back then, only an artificial sky, an orange sky, starless, created by suburban street lamps, so that looking out of the window at night you would see only this orange sky like a great sublunar shell above the estate; I had only rows of terraced houses, and the playing fields opposite the wool-combing mill, I had only a living room thick with cigarette smoke and the buzz of the constant TV, I had only Nescafe and Angel Delight, I had an estate populated by Tanners and Simpsons, but no Virgil to guide me through it, no way out, no escape.