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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

September 26, 2003


Is "blowsy" the word I'm looking for? This is how I imagined Helen would turn out. She was one of the more attractive girls when we were at school, having developed Class A breasts early on. Her blonde hair was worn long, and I seem to remember a kind of Farrah Fawcett flickback style. I didn't imagine that persisted for long, though there were undoubetdly some dark years in the 80s when she fared no better.

But all that would be speculation, for Helen is one of the many people I never saw again, once I was 18 and had left home. I still have a school photo with her in it, and that's how I always remembered her.

First thing to say about Helen, if Walter Mitty has a female equivalent, she would be it. She lived a rich fantasy life; or you could say she was a compulsive liar. She sat next to me in Maths and a couple of other subjects, and sometimes everything she said was a lie, or a fantasy. She was quite funny in her way. I said to her once, "You should see a psychiatrist," and she immediately said, "My dad's a psychiatrist."


And she looked back to her work, paused for a second and said, "No."

There should be a word for people who are much funnier than you realise they are at the time. I realise now that she was witty and sophisticated, capable of flights of fancy that could bring the house down. My first memory of her, in fact, has her sitting on the school stage waiting to audition for the school play. She was listening to Radio 1 waiting to see if David Soul was number one in the singles charts. It would have been a Tuesday in those days, I guess. Which is odd to think, that it was a Tuesday lunchtime I met her.

She was horrible to me for a year or so, making witheringly sarcastic remarks every time we passed each other on a path or in a corridor. But -- what was it? -- my resilience, or my ability, after a while, to see through her or give back as good as she gave, caused her to warm to me. We were closer and closer for a time; and then I left.

She was on my list, my list of girls I loved. Not in the same obsessive way as Sally, but in a quietly determined way. Once I'd left and moved in to my squalid shared house, she wrote me a number of letters. If Lucy's were the best, Helen's ran a close second. Full of detail and information I hadn't know she'd be willing to give. See, I'd consistently underestimated her, and in letters she was an absolute revelation. More fool me.

It came to a sad end. Whereas Lucy arranged a visit and actually turned up, Helen went through the process of arranging a visit but complicated it with lies and deceit, so that I didn't know if it was supposed to be real or not. First of all, she explained, no way would her dad let her travel alone to London to visit a bloke. So one of my band mates had to phone her dad pretending to be my dad. He had to say he was driving down to see me at the weekend and would be happy to give Helen a lift.

So that was done. But though she wrote and gave exact instructions as to where to meet her and when, she never turned up. I trecked down to St Pancras and waited on the platform for around three hours, but she never showed.

The following week, I got a letter from her, tightly plotted. Her dad had thought to offer my dad petrol money and had phoned him back -- a pretext, I was sure. He'd found out the lie and banned Helen from travelling.

So far so tragic, but then a couple of weeks later I happened to be in town and bumped into Rachel, one of her friends, who told me a different story. Helen's parents, it was, were going away for the weekend. Helen had concocted a likely story of coming down to see me that weekend, but had instead arranged for her real boyfriend to stay over, in her parents house. But they came home early and caught her in the act.

Or something. I wrote to her, accusingly, hurt, wounded, betrayed. She never replied. Later that summer I was in town again and saw her across a crowded pub. I swear she said my name, but there was a mass of people between us, and I was in a wave that was leaking through the main entrance. A year later, I saw her in the Arndale shopping centre, walking with some girl I'd never seen before. And after that, I swear I saw her driving a beige Fiesta, someone in the passenger seat; and she was laughing and smiling as she pulled away.

Lucy said she once walked into a newsagents in Brighton and Helen was working there, behind the counter. That was the last news. I imagined she stayed beautiful for a few years, but that her kind of build, her kind of looks, would end up going a certain way, which is where we came in. Blowsy. A blowsy blonde who stays blonder with the bottle, wears a fake tan, and has put on a little too much weight.

But when Lucy and I sidled into the crowded kitchen of Sally's house, the afternoon we arrived, I didn't see such an animal. Looking round the slightly dim room, trying to pick out faces, my eyes alighted on a stranger: a small, intelligent-looking woman, wearing rimless glasses and with hair kept short, neat, and stylish. As she stood up to greet us in the traditional french way, I realised who it was.

"You've grown smaller and we're all bigger, or something," I said.
"Yeah, you look like you've put on about two stone. All these years I've been thinking you were skinny as a rake with sprayed on jeans. I am actually two inches shorter than I used to be."



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