FROM First Love, Last Rights by Ian McEwan
I CAN SEE NOW our cramped, overlit bathroom and Connie with a towel draped round her shoulders, sitting on the edge of the bath weeping, while I filled the sink with warm water and whistled – such was my elation – ‘Teddy Bear’ by Elvis Presley, I can remember, I have always been able to remember, fluff from the candlewick bedspread swirling on the surface of the water, but only lately have I fully realised that if this was the end of a particular episode, in so far as real-life episodes may be said to have an end, it was Raymond who occupied, so to speak, the beginning and middle, and if in human affairs there are no such things as episodes then I should really insist that this story is about Raymond and not about virginity, coitus, incest and self- abuse. So let me begin by telling you that it was ironic, for reasons which will become apparent only very much later – and you must be patient – it was ironic that Raymond of all people should want to make me aware of my virginity.
On Finsbury Park one day Raymond approached me, and steering me across to some laurel bushes bent and unbent his finger mysteriously before my face and watched me intently as he did so. I looked on blankly. Then I bent and unbent my finger too and saw that it was the right thing to do because Raymond beamed.
‘You get it?’ he said. ‘You get it!’ Driven by his exhilaration I said yes, hoping then that Raymond would leave me alone now to bend and unbend my finger, to come at some understanding of his bewildering digital allegory in solitude. Raymond grasped my lapels with unusual intensity.
‘What about it, then?’ he gasped. Playing for time, I crooked my forefinger again and slowly straightened it, cool and sure, in fact so cool and sure that Raymond held his breath and stiffened with its motion. I looked at my erect finger and said, ‘That depends,’ wondering if I was to discover today what it was we were talking of.
Raymond was fifteen then, a year older than I was, and though I counted myself his intellectual superior – which was why I had to pretend to understand the significance of his finger – it was Raymond who knew things, it was Raymond who conducted my education. It was Raymond who initiated me into the secrets of adult life which he understood himself intuitively but never totally. The world he showed me, all its fascinating detail, lore and sin, the world for which he was a kind of standing master of ceremonies, never really suited Raymond. He knew that world well enough, but it – so to speak – did not want to know him. So when Raymond produced cigarettes, it was I who learned to inhale the smoke deeply, to blow smoke- rings and to cup my hands round the match like a film star, while Raymond choked and fumbled; and later on when Raymond first got hold of some marihuana, of which I had never heard, it was I who finally got stoned into euphoria while Raymond admitted – something I would never have done myself – that he felt nothing at all. And again, while it was Raymond with his deep voice and wisp of beard who got us into horror films, he would sit through the show with his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut. And that was remarkable in view of the fact that in one month alone we saw twenty-two horror films. When Raymond stole a bottle of whisky from a supermarket in order to introduce me to alcohol, I giggled drunkenly for two hours at Raymond’s convulsive fits of vomiting. My first pair of long trousers were a pair belonging to Raymond which he had given to me as a present on my thirteenth birthday.
On Raymond they had, like all his clothes, stopped four inches short of his ankles, bulged at the thigh, bagged at the groin and now, as if a parable for our friendship, they fitted me like tailor-mades, in fact so well did they fit me, so comfortable did they feel, that I wore no other trousers for a year. And then there were the thrills of shoplifting.
The idea as explained to me by Raymond was quite simple. You walked into Foyle’s bookshop, crammed your pockets with books and took them to a dealer on the Mile End Road who was pleased to give you half their cost price. For the very first occasion I borrowed my father’s overcoat which trailed the pavement magnificently as I swept along. I met Raymond outside the shop. He was in shirtsleeves because he had left his coat on the Under- ground but he was certain he could manage without one anyway, so we went into the shop. While I stuffed into my many pockets a selection of slim volumes of prestigious verse, Raymond was concealing on his person the seven volumes of the Variorum Edition of the Works of Edmund Spenser. For anyone else the boldness of the act might have offered some chance of success, but Raymond’s bold- ness had a precarious quality, closer in fact to a complete detachment from the realities of the situation. The under- manager stood behind Raymond as he plucked the books from the shelf. The two of them were standing by the door as I brushed by with my own load, and I gave Raymond, who still clasped the tomes about him, a conspiratorial smile, and thanked the under-manager who automatically held the door open for me. Fortunately, so hopeless was Raymond’s attempt at shoplifting, so idiotic and trans- parent his excuses, that the manager finally let him go, liberally assuming him to be, I suppose, mentally deranged.
And finally, and perhaps most significantly, Raymond acquainted me with the dubious pleasures of mastur- bation. At the time I was twelve, the dawn of my sexual day. We were exploring a cellar on a bomb site, poking around to see what the dossers had left behind, when Raymond, having lowered his trousers as if to have a piss, began to rub his prick with a coruscating vigour, inviting me to do the same. I did and soon became suffused with a warm, indistinct pleasure which intensified to a floating, melting sensation as if my guts might at any time drift away to nothing. And all this time our hands pumped furiously. I was beginning to congratulate Raymond on his discovery of such a simple, inexpensive yet pleasurable way of passing the time, and at the same time wondering if I could not dedicate my whole life to this glorious sensation – and I suppose looking back now in many respects I have – I was about to express all manner of things when I was lifted by the scruff of the neck, my arms, my legs, my insides, haled, twisted, racked, and producing for all this two dollops of sperm which flipped over Raymond’s Sunday jacket – it was Sunday – and dribbled into his breast pocket.
‘Hey,’ he said, breaking with his action, ‘what did you do that for?’ Still recovering from this devastating experience I said nothing, I could not say anything.
‘I show you how to do this,’ harangued Raymond, dabbing delicately at the glistening jissom on his dark jacket, ‘and all you can do is spit.’
And so by the age of fourteen I had acquired, with Raymond’s guidance, a variety of pleasures which I rightly associated with the adult world. I smoked about ten cigarettes a day, I drank whisky when it was available, I had a connoisseur’s taste for violence and obscenity, I had smoked the heady resin of cannabis sativa and I was aware of my own sexual precocity, though oddly it never occurred to me to find any use for it, my imagination as yet unnourished by longings or private fantasies. And all these pastimes were financed by the dealer in the Mile End Road. For these acquired tastes Raymond was my Mephistopheles, he was a clumsy Virgil to my Dante, showing me the way to a Paradiso where he himself could not tread. He could not smoke because it made him cough, the whisky made him ill, the films frightened or bored him, the cannabis did not affect him, and while I made stalactites on the ceiling of the bomb-site cellar, he made nothing at all.
‘Perhaps,’ he said mournfully as we were leaving the site one afternoon, ‘perhaps I’m a little too old for that sort of thing.’
So when Raymond stood before me now intently crooking and straightening his finger I sensed that here was yet another fur-lined chamber of that vast, gloomy and delectable mansion, adulthood, and that if I only held back a little, concealing, for pride’s sake, my ignorance, then shortly Raymond would reveal and then shortly I would excel.
‘Well, that depends.’ We walked across Finsbury Park where once Raymond, in his earlier, delinquent days had fed glass splinters to the pigeons, where together, in innocent bliss worthy of the ‘Prelude’, we had roasted alive Sheila Harcourt’s budgerigar while she swooned on the grass nearby, where as young boys we had crept behind bushes to hurl rocks at the couples fucking in the arbour; across Finsbury Park then, and Raymond saying, ‘Who do you know?’ Who did I know? I was still blundering, and this could be a change of subject, for Raymond had an imprecise mind. So I said, ‘Who do you know?’ to which Raymond replied, ‘Lulu Smith,’ and made everything clear – or at least the subject matter, for my innocence was remarkable. Lulu Smith! Dinky Lulu! the very name curls a chilly hand round my balls. Lulu Lamour, of whom it was said she would do anything, and that she had done everything. There were Jewish jokes, elephant jokes and there were Lulu jokes, and these were mainly responsible for the extravagant legend. Lulu Slim – but how my mind reels – whose physical enormity was matched only by the enormity of her reputed sexual appetite and prowess, her grossness only by the grossness she inspired, the legend only by the reality. Zulu Lulu! who – so fame had it – had laid a trail across north London of frothing idiots, a desolation row of broken minds and pricks spanning Shepherds Bush to Holloway, Ongar to Islington. Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh who had, so reputation insisted, had it with a giraffe, a humming-bird, a man in an iron lung (who had subsequently died), a yak, Cassius Clay, a marmoset, a Mars Bar and the gear stick of her grandfather’s Morris Minor (and subsequently a traffic warden).
Finsbury Park was filled with the spirit of Lulu Smith and I felt for the first time ill-defined longings as well as mere curiosity. I knew approximately what was to be done, for had I not seen heaped couples in all corners of the park during the long summer evenings, and had I not thrown stones and water bombs? – something I now superstitiously regretted. And suddenly there in Finsbury Park, as we threaded our way through the pert piles of dog shit, I was made aware of and resented my virginity; I knew it to be the last room in the mansion, I knew it to be for certain the most luxurious, its furnishings more elaborate than any other room, its attractions more deadly, and the fact that I had never had it, made it, done it, was a total anathema, my malodorous albatross, and I looked to Raymond, who still held his forefinger stiff before him, to reveal what I must do. Raymond was bound to know…
After school Raymond and I went to a cafe near Finsbury Park Odeon. While others of our age picked their noses over their stamp collections or homework, Raymond and I spent many hours here, discussing mostly easy ways of making money, and drinking large mugs of tea. Sometimes we got talking to the workmen who came there. Millais should have been there to paint us as we listened transfixed to their unintelligible fantasies and exploits, of deals with lorry drivers, lead from church roofs, fuel missing from the City Engineer’s department, and then of cunts, bits, skirt, of strokings, beatings, fuckings, suckings, of arses and tits, behind, above, below, in front, with, without, of scratching and tearing, licking and shitting, of juiced cunts streaming, warm and infinite, of others cold and arid but worth a try, of pricks old and limp, or young and ebullient, of coming, too soon, too late or not at all, of how many times a day, of attendant diseases, of pus and swellings, cankers and regrets, of poisoned ovaries and destitute testicles; we listened to who and how the dustmen fucked, how the Co-op milkmen fitted it in, what the coalmen could hump, what the carpet-fitter could lay, what the builders could erect, what the meter man could inspect, what the bread man could deliver, the gas man sniff out, the plumber plumb, the electrician connect, the doctor inject, the lawyer solicit, the furniture man instal – and so on, in an unreal complex of timeworn puns and innuendo, formulas, slogans, folklore and bravado. I listened without understanding, remembering and filing away anecdotes which I would one day use myself, putting by histories of perversions and sexual manners – in fact a whole sexual morality, so that when finally I began to understand, from my own experience, what it was all about, I had on tap a complete education which, augmented by a quick reading of the more interesting parts of Havelock Ellis and Henry Miller, earned me the reputation of being the juvenile connoisseur of coitus to whom dozens of males – and fortunately females, too – came to seek advice. And all this, a reputation which followed me into art college and enlivened my career there, all this after only one fuck – the subject of this story.