He never entirely trusted dreams, and least of all felt the need to interpret them, but very occasionally he would have a dream so horrific, or so erotic, he felt life somehow inadequate next to it. A couple of months before he had a dream that he jokingly thought may well have been the highlight of his sexual life. He had almost a year before split up with a beautiful woman whom almost everybody he knew found not only very attractive, but sexy too, and yet one of the reasons why they split up was because he believed the sex wasn't working, or rather he was not overwhelmed by it. Perhaps it was because during their four years together Virginia would talk so much of fertility, and how much more aroused she happened to be when ovulating, that sex seemed contained by the sacred more than the profane. In his dream perhaps the erotic highlight was more profane than sacred.
Ever since breaking up with Virginia the year before, he had taken any opportunity he could to go to a party and get drunk, but though Tom would meet women there and talk to them, and sometimes get their phone numbers, whenever he slept with them he felt neither the tenderness he felt for Virginia, nor the arousal he would encounter in his dreams. Yet after one particular dream quite recently, he wondered whether the realisation of the dream would lead to him getting the sex which would give him most pleasure. It is as if what he sought from sex was complete abandon; what he had with Virginia he believed was complete commitment. This abandonment was what he hoped to find with the casual strangers he had slept with, but instead all he would feel was the loss of Virginia in the body of another woman.
He would sometimes wonder if there were chiefly two poles to sex: the pleasurable experience ending in an orgasm that would lead to nine months of pregnancy and sixteen to eighteen years of emotional and financial commitment, or an instantaneous pleasure without any further expectation. For most people of course it was unlikely this dichotomy existed, but for him perhaps it always had, and yet though he had two long term ex-girlfriends and a number of casual lovers, he had yet to encounter in life the sexual pleasure he had encountered in dreams, and yet he believed life could offer it.
But how, and what was this dream that was so powerful it seemed to create in his mind a yearning that sometimes felt equal to the way he missed Virginia, a yearning not of the heart but of the body. Well, when he woke up the morning after it, this is what he could remember. It was around the early evening, and he looked up at a street sign that perhaps said massage parlour, walked up some narrow stairs to a door that he knocked upon, and a woman looked through a slit like a high letter box and asked what he was looking for. He said he had seen the sign and would like some sex. Within the dream he asked as though he were asking a shop assistant if they had a product he was looking for, and there was none of the social embarrassment he would have felt in his waking life. She opened the door and welcomed him in, and said he would have to wait a few moments. She was talking on the phone to a friend and this added to any erotic arousal he felt in her presence. He had always assumed a prostitute was someone who would attend to his every need and whim, and this apart from numerous moral reasons was why he had never gone. Surely all the pleasure they were claiming to have, all the attention they were bestowing upon him, was because he had paid for that pleasure. However, here he was, sitting on the woman's sofa, and he could observe her in detail without her at all it seemed showing any interest in him.
She was in her early twenties, with medium length, light blond hair that looked natural since it went well with her green-blue eyes and her pink-reddish lips, and her naturally pale complexion. He said naturally, because often women with pale skin were a shade below their natural tone and it would come through in the darkish patches under their eyes. Not in this instance. She was not tall, but she had long legs on a short trunk, and as she arched her back, wearing a short skirt worn low at the waist and a sleeveless vest, he felt a low lust rising in him. He wanted to go over and take her while she was still on the phone, yet he waited, and waited for what may have been thirty seconds or thirty minutes, for of course, in the dream, time has no coordinates. Eventually, or shortly thereafter, she said goodbye and turned to him, saying that she was not there to fulfil his fantasies. That would be very boring. Instead she was to second-guess them. Was she always so right, he asked. Always, she insisted, because was she not a figment of his erotic imagination? Yet that was where the dream ended.
He recalled over the years various, and perhaps surprisingly intimate, conversations with a friend of his. Paul was an electrician now in his mid-thirties who stayed in a small village in the south of England, where Tom's parents still lived, and where he bought his compact cottage when he was twenty one and that quite recently he had paid off. There were times during those years Paul said where he would almost be in tears for lack of work and fear that the cottage would be taken from him. Tom knew that he was brought up in an orphanage, knew that he had worked sometimes sixteen hours a day between sixteen and twenty one to get a deposit for the house, and knew that ever since it was the one element of stability in Paul's life. He remembered Paul telling him that he had never committed to anything as he had to his home. Tom was living with his parents when they first met, the summer before going off to university in Edinburgh, and they got to know each other because Paul put up an ad in the post office asking for someone to help him with general handyman duties at the weekend. He was only a few years older than Tom but seemed many more not especially because of the way he looked; more because of his capacity for self-sufficiency. Yet this wasn't the same thing at all as saying that Paul was confident and assured, though he seemed to be that in the work he was doing around his own house. He appeared not only to know how to wire up the house, but also put in the plumbing and mend the roof.
Over the years Tom got to know him well and though Paul had a few short term relationships over those years he was mainly alone, and after splitting up with Virginia, Tom reminded Paul of a conversation they had where Paul explained to him why he could not be with anyone long-term, after Tom had assumed it was because he couldn't find anybody who would want to live in a small village without the sort of commitments most men would offer but that Paul would not: marriage and children. Paul explained that day it might have been the problem for them, but that wasn't the problem for him. He found that after the first few weeks of each other's company the dream-like quality wore off, and Tom asked him to say more about this. Paul insisted that initially it was a dream-like state similar to dreams where his feelings would be met by the other person's. They would never be in each other's way, a thought expressed could be completed by the other person, a touch seemed to be exactly what he sought, but then after a month reality returned, and he knew he would prefer to be alone with his own thoughts and feelings than be out of rhythm with somebody else's. He asked Tom if he didn't feel like this also. Tom always knew of course that Paul was much more self-sufficient than he was, and could see it merely looking around his house that late spring afternoon. As they sat outside in the garden of this cottage Paul had renovated himself, as Tom looked at the garden where Paul grew his own herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, and where there were numerous plants, he felt small and incompetent. Not only did Paul know how to look after himself materially; he also knew how to do so emotionally as well it seemed, and still could.
If Tom had the insight Paul provided that day would he have been with his partner from university as long as he had been, for it was not that long after splitting up with Mina, about six years ago, that Paul had explained why he was usually alone. As his parents would ask him questions about whether it was the right thing to do, whether they should have moved towards marriage and children, so Tom was especially assuaged by Paul's observations, then, but equally, and perhaps especially retrospectively, he became troubled by them, not least by what Paul told him during another of their conversations some time later.
It was one winter evening, just before Tom started seeing Virginia, and Paul was sitting next to the fireplace that he had designed, looking at the fire he had recently lit coming to warm life, and Tom asked Paul whether he wasn't lonely, sexually lonely. Would it not sometimes have been better to stay with a partner for regular sexual contact? Tom explained that during those six months he had been with a woman twice, both one-night stands, both drunken encounters with people he had met at a party, both occasions were no more satisfactory than self-release, and a lot more awkward. Paul jabbed about in the fire and then turned and said that maybe there are alternatives, and explained in more detail than ever before that for a number years he had been going, every month or so, and whenever he had enough money, to massage parlours. As he offered intimate disclosures, Paul might have offered the comments as a confession, but Tom received them not with a sense of shock but of revelation. It seemed to make sense, and when Paul went on to explain that he believed self-sufficiency was living life in accordance with one's desires, he reckoned this sexual need could be met much more consistently by an occasional parlour visit than by a regular girlfriend.
Now this didn't mean he would get sex more often by going into London or Bristol once a month (he lived about halfway between each city), more that he was never negotiating his own sexual needs with someone else's emotional demands: when he wanted sex he would have it; he would not be frustrated in the presence of someone with whom he wanted sex while they did not want sex with him. He believed it was the same with loneliness. If he were lonely he could seek the company of a film, a book, a friend on the phone. Are people not often in relationships where they are lonely with their partner but cannot so easily pick up a book or watch a film without seeming to ignore their partner, or sexually desiring while their partner is not in the mood?
One offers Paul's views as bluntly as he presented them to Tom, but one should perhaps add that throughout this conversation there was also in Paul's voice a searching tone as if wondering whether what he said really made sense, and wondering whether he was the best person to express it. While he had years of aloneness; Paul didn't have the years as part of a couple to make some of the statements he was making. Tom had however been with Mina for four years, and would soon have another four years again with Virginia, and what Paul said, Tom had felt on many occasions with Mina: there were plenty of times when Tom wanted to watch a film but Mina wanted to watch television; times when he started reading a book and where she felt Tom was ignoring her, times when he wanted sex but she didn't, and occasionally times when she wanted sex and he didn't.
Now Paul and Mina had met two or three times when she came with Tom to visit his parents, and it wasn't until during this conversation, and with the relationship having been over for some months, that Tom asked Paul what he thought of her. Paul said he felt that like a lot of people she wanted to be part of a couple more than anything else, and that he wouldn't be surprised if she was already seeing someone and moving towards marriage. He laughed, and said that he was joking, or rather that he was half-joking, and Tom laughed back saying he might have been half-joking but that Tom suspected he was entirely right. Mina would always say she wanted to be in a couple, that she never felt whole alone.
It was then that he asked him how Tom felt, and Tom said he would never feel lonelier than after a break up (though Tom's experience at this point was limited to two girlfriends, one for a year before university, and Mina during and after it), but several months later he would be fine: his loneliness as a person didn't increase from the time Tom was alone; it was the immediate traces of the person's absence that left him feeling lonely. When for example Mina said she didn't want to continue seeing him if he wasn't willing to move to London with her, wasn't willing to follow her since she had the better job (in marketing), that he could find another second-hand book shop to work in, he felt relief within the hurt, and over the months the relief became stronger and the hurt weaker.
Yet a year or so after breaking up with Mina, Tom started seeing Virginia. He met her in the very bookshop that he had refused to leave when Mina offered her ultimatum, and when they started seeing each other he would often remind himself that Mina was someone whom he would never have met in such an environment. Mina was a technophile; and would have accused Tom of being a Luddite if she knew what the word meant. But of course there were many words that she used that he wouldn't have known: while he had studied English she had done marketing and Computer Science. Virginia, though, was, like Tom, a graduate in the humanities, and was working for a listings magazine in the city, writing on books and music, and editing the former section. She was looking to write an article on second-hand bookshops, in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and asked if she could speak to him for twenty minutes. Tom replied that she could probably talk to him for much longer than that, and so they chatted for more than two hours, briefly interrupted only on a couple of occasions by people buying books (it was a quiet day), and Tom would have asked for her mobile phone number if he had a mobile with which to pump it into. Instead he settled for her email address and a couple of days later sent her a message, to which she promptly responded. They went for dinner that weekend, and were already a couple within a month.
Tom felt little of the dissonant boredom he would sometimes experience with Mina where they would compromise over a film, where the gig was more mainstream then he would like, and where he would spend far less time in second-hand bookshops when they were travelling than he would had he been alone. Over the first six months Virginia and Tom would be in each other's beds most nights, staying a couple of evenings over at his, followed by a couple over at hers and so on. Then after eight months of this they thought it made sense to get a flat together, and the monumental step that he always believed moving in with another person would be (he never lived with Mina) seemed irrelevant next to the excitement he felt moving in with Virginia. He had been in the same flat since his second year at university, six years in the same compact studio apartment: a room walled with books, and with a walk-in kitchen and shower room with a toilet off it. It was more than a home; it was vital to his identity, and had it been four times the size it wouldn't have successfully fitted his sense of himself as this small space did. He had on numerous occasions said that he could see himself being there for the rest of his life. When friends would say wouldn't you eventually like a bath, a separate bedroom, a much bigger flat, he said that would be like desiring to wear clothes several sizes too big.
Yet when Tom started seeing Virginia he began to feel that they were trying to fit into each other's clothes: that her room in a large shared flat didn't give them enough privacy, and his flat wasn't quite giving them enough space. When she said one afternoon that perhaps they should share a place together, he suddenly liked the thought of it even though he hadn't considered even once that he might move out of his own studio. He thought as soon as she said that, the fit would work. The only doubts he may have had concerned their sexual life.
He enjoyed sex with her, and she enjoyed sex with him, but he suspected that they had both been with partners that had satisfied them more than they were satisfying each other. He knew by the way she described one ex-partner that whatever qualities he possessed must have been sexual since in almost every other area of his existence he seemed emotionally and socially lacking. She never said that this was the sexual experience of her life, but Tom sensed it, and he also sometimes wondered whether making love with Virginia was quite as pleasurable as having sex with Mina or more especially as his erotic dreams. He would sometimes recall Mina coming into the studio flat after work and asking if she could get a quick shower, half knowing that this was her way of saying she wanted sex without stating it. Often she would be dressed in her work clothes, a black skirt a little above the knee, a white blouse, black jacket and high heels. As she would start to remove each item he would feel aroused and by the time she was in her underwear, usually lace, sometimes silk, almost never dull cotton, he was over by the door of the shower room, and pulling her towards the bed settee. Yet even then he would wonder whether it was the best sex he could ever wish for, and he also worried that while making love with Virginia was a beautiful experience, meaningful, tender and sometimes very moving, he was troubled that he would never feel desire in the manner Paul presumably would.
But these thoughts about Virginia were minor doubts, Tom felt; doubts so irrelevant next to the certainties he would feel when thinking about Virginia, and when thinking about the future life he would have with her. They rented a two bedroom top floor flat that needed work done to it, and they agreed on a lower rent with the landlord in return for painting and decorating the place, picking ups bits and pieces of furniture cheaply, and by getting Paul to do some plumbing and electrical work on the cheap. Paul, who had been up to Edinburgh once before when Tom was a student, agreed to come up for a week and do all the work necessary. It was the week before moving in, and the landlord had agreed to waive the rent for that period since Virginia and Tom wanted to keep their own flats until the essential work was done. Paul slept in the new flat that week, and a couple of times came over for dinner at the studio, and once for dinner at Virginia's place. It was the first time they had met, and it was the first time that Tom wondered whether he had less in common with Paul, or less in common with Virginia, than he thought, since both of them seemed to have very little in common with each other.
There Virginia was, with two brothers and a sister, whose parents had always stayed together, who would say that she loved her parents when she would speak to them on the phone, and who, after they visited her several months before in Edinburgh she would hug tearfully as they left, trying to talk to a man who had no one, and who always claimed he didn't want anyone either. As they talked, Tom could see fright in Virginia's eyes, and he wondered whether it was because of Paul, and what he said, as he talked a little about his aloneness, or whether it was in relation to Tom: that if Paul were his closest friend, how close could she really get to him?
It was after that first meal together, as Virginian and Tom lay in bed in her room amongst stacked boxes, many, like his boxes, filled with books, that she asked whether he shared Paul's philosophy more than Tom had admitted. He explained to her, as he had a few times before, that he could have seen himself living forever in the studio, said that it fitted him like a glove, but she made him realise he preferred mittens, with a string holding the two together. As he said this he kissed her and hugged her and said that his days as a glove were almost over. She laughed and said she wondered whether Paul's was a boxing glove: he seemed so combative, she believed, in his own aloneness. Tom asked her to say more, and Virginia said that when Tom went to the bathroom, Paul asked her if she had ever really been alone, felt the need for isolation. She said that she was probably what others would call a people person; and Paul asked whether Tom would describe himself similarly. It was as if he was saying whatever bond Tom had with her, was weak next to the ties with him
Tom that night reassured her, saying obviously he had a greater affinity with her perspective than Paul's. Had his parents not also stayed together; would he not sometimes go down south and visit when he knew cousins and other relatives were around? However, as he listed the reasons why he was clearly much closer to her than to Paul, he knew also that there was an affinity with Paul that he couldn't quite explain.
For the next several years, Tom and Virginia lived together, happily sharing their lives in what seemed to be a mutually meaningful way. They might not have liked the same artists or the same films, but it did not stop them from going to exhibitions and films together, and where with Mina he often thought that he was undermining his life as they shared time together, with Virginia he could think of almost no moment where he felt like he was compromising. But after the first six months in the flat he noticed they would have sex no more than once a week and sometimes less, and what was worse did not feel that he desired it any more often. Their life was wonderful, but the sex life became more subsidiary, and though he would see Paul no more than twice a year during this period, he knew that when they met up, he would leave taking away from the exchange a bit more of Paul's perspective and feel a little less love for Virginia.
Once when Tom went down on his own, a couple of years after sharing the flat with Virginia, he ostensibly was visiting his parents but much of the time was spent going on long walks with Paul. Wasn't Paul ever lonely, Tom asked, emotionally lonely, and Paul replied he couldn't really answer that because he had always been alone. He enjoyed people's company, enjoyed walking at that moment with Tom, and would enjoy meeting up with other people in the village for a pint in the pub, but he felt almost no loss when a person was absent, and returned comfortably to his own company. The people he had seen for a short period, the women with whom he had slept with and even tried having a relationship with, made him much more claustrophobic in their presence than lonely in their absence, and so he accepted that he ought to be single.
Tom asked him again about his sex life, and Paul said it was almost exclusively now through going to massage parlours. He wasn't saying it was right to do so, he was saying it was the closest to an arrangement that worked for him: it seemed to meet his sexual needs whilst at the same time accommodating his aloneness. Those two things were important to him: a deep sexual desire met, and aloneness achieved. He could see sometimes on other men's faces after leaving the parlour that they wanted more than sexual satisfaction: that they were also looking for emotional sustenance. But he would receive what he paid for, and if he was ever disappointed after visiting, it was because the lover had not met his fantasies, had not second-guessed his innermost sexual desires.
When Paul said this, Tom realised that by such a reckoning nobody had met his. Those moments with Mina as she would strip by the shower room door were the closest to that meeting of a mind's thought and another's body's actions, but even then, as soon as she was naked, it was as though he could have been in anybody arms and anyone's body. Somehow during the act of sex he had never felt the person singularly present to him, wholly themselves for him. He didn't try to explain this as he walked with Paul, probably at that moment hadn't quite formulated it in such a manner, but later it may have been what led to him eventually breaking up with Virginia.
By the time Virginia and Tom parted, they were having sex once every couple of months, and Tom would sometimes sit in cafes and think of all the women he might prefer to sleep with. It was mainly in cafes that he would sit, as if looking not to act upon his desires as he may have half-expected to do had he gone to pubs, but enjoying the casual thoughts that would pass through his head as he wondered which of the people he would see who could second-guess his sexual wishes, desires that he wouldn't even know were there until he might meet the person who could help him actualise them. These thoughts increasingly played on his mind, and increasingly alienated him from Virginia. They were now both in their early thirties, and he knew ever since they had met that Virginia was someone who would eventually like children, and he couldn't help but feel that rather than giving birth to a child, he wished to give birth to a series of sexual experiences. Whenever he thought of children he thought of the possible life giving way to the actual, and while he had sought much of this possible existence in films, books and art, he knew now he wanted to experience it sexually.
He did not couch it in these terms when he said to Virginia that he wanted to part. He was more practical than that: explained that he would never make a very good living working in a second-hand book shop; even if he were to buy one of his own, how much money would he be likely to make when everyone was buying through the internet? Yet as he said this, as Virginia started to cry, in quiet, heaving sobs, he felt so much tenderness that he wanted to change his mind, but knew that even if were to do so, it was unlikely that as he went over to her and said that he was wrong, it was not fair and that he really loved her, it would not lead to passionate sex, but probably no more than a cuddle as they would sit or lie in each other's arms and put on a film.
But he knew also that over the next few months, as he would find another studio to live in, as he would readjust to cooking for one, so he would miss Virginia. Yet he underestimated by a very great distance this feeling of loneliness as he did move out, as he did find another studio, and as he realised that the books he had accumulated over the years would not fit into the small space that he had found that was around the same size as the previous one. As many of the books lay in piles on the floor, he felt no permanence to this life; it had none of the certitude it possessed when he had previously been alone. He never asked Virginia back, but he would frequently look for the tiniest of premises to see her, and knew also that if she were to ever ask him to return he would have done so.
She never did, and within three months of their parting she started seeing someone else, the new flatmate who had moved into the other bedroom in the flat they had shared. He knew not because she told him, but one evening after he had gone round to pick up some mail, he could see that this man, who was around their age, but a bulky, bearded and clearly affectionate figure, was much better suited to giving Virginia the warmth she deserved, and thereafter he asked her to send the mail on to his new address. He left feeling inadequate, as if sandwiched between two other men: the earlier one whom he suspected was a much more sexually satisfying lover than he had been; the new man capable of the emotional tenderness she needed.
It was a month after this, after he had started going to parties and on a couple of occasions would spend the night with someone, that he had the erotic dream that was like the sex he had always desired but never had, and it was around a week after the dream, quite recently, that he had arranged to go down south for his mother's birthday, and explained the dream to Paul. It was not that he had never had vivid and erotic dreams before, but they would not survive in the memory; by the afternoon of the following day the dream would have evaporated from his mind. But this dream was strong enough to remain in his head vividly for days, even now as he described it to Paul. It was then Paul offered in more detail than he ever had before the nature of his sexual life.
It was after Tom talked of feeling that he wanted more profanity than sacredness from sex, yet had believed Virginia wanted more to move towards having a child than losing herself in the moment of sexual congress. The orgasm might have been the little death, but it was as though each encounter should move towards the strong possibility of creating life. In their last year together, Tom agreed that they should stop using contraception, and on each occasion they would make love thereafter he knew they were emotionally engaged in a different act. She wanted a baby; he hoped that she wouldn't conceive. Paul said he knew that sex was always a profane act, that he wanted nothing more from it than a small but brilliant pleasure. Of course he didn't think women were objects, but during the moment of sex he did not want to think about them as figures that menstruated, defecated, urinated and gave birth.
Paul explained that, as Tom knew, he would occasionally start seeing someone, and around a year ago, that he went out briefly with a woman from a town around thirty miles away whom he met whilst doing some work on her house. Her husband had left her the previous year, and she was bringing up her three year old on her own, with a little help from her mother who lived not far from her, and who would look after the child when she came to stay over at Paul's. Anyway, Paul said, the first three or four times she came over to stay it was fine. She would arrive in her car nicely dressed and he would be preparing dinner as she rang the doorbell. They would smooch at the door, canoodle on the couch and end up in bed with the dinner half-cooked and the cooker turned off. He didn't mind afterwards salvaging the meal, but after the first few occasions, she wanted the meal first; thought it was a shame not to make the most of the food that he had cooked. Also instead of leaving the next morning before breakfast she started to stay till lunchtime, phoning her mum and asking if she could look after the little one for a bit longer. She even started to make the breakfast, and after it, one morning when he went up to the toilet, he could smell that she had already been in there, and he couldn't stand what was only the faintest of odours. As she left shortly before lunchtime he said that this wasn't what he wanted. He didn't say exactly to her what he didn't want; how could he have ended the affair on the basis of the slight smell of human waste? Yet that seemed to be the moment when he did not want to be with her anymore.
Tom thought about Virginia, and remembered once when they were on holiday in Morocco that she had food poisoning and kept going to the bathroom. He was lying on the bed, his head next the toilet wall, and could hear in the echoing space an empty bowel passing little more than wind and watery waste. Afterwards, she blushed and apologised for the noise in there, and said maybe that was what real intimacy was all about. Tom knew she was right; but couldn't quite equate the figure in the bathroom with the one he would want to make love to.
Paul thought it was interesting that society so disapproved of prostitution and saw the prostitute as the lowliest of figures; yet for him she was actually the purest; the one for whom the vulgarities of intimacy were completely missing. Now he knew of course there were many who swore and smoked and drank and played up their seedy corporeal status, but that was not what Paul would feel when going to the parlours. He explained that the sheets were always clean, that both Paul and the woman would shower before and after sex, and he would always use condoms, though he had heard that some of the girls would have sex without them. Even what they wore smelled clean and fresh, as if they changed clothing several times a day, and that round the back they had a huge industrial washing machine. The whites, he said, were always white, and what he sometimes hated with some women was that their whites were faintly coloured; that they threw everything into the wash as a bad painter would throw together colour.
The more Paul talked, the more Tom could see similarities with his dream, the more details he gave, the more erotic, Tom believed, was the world in which his subconscious fantasies could meet with reality, and wondered whether he too would start visiting parlours. Yet later that evening back at his parents' place, he increasingly thought not of the dream that wouldn't go away, but of many of his experiences with even women he had slept with once or on a few occasions, of his relationship with Mina and much more his relationship with Virginia. Could he expect his sexual fantasies to be met by a stranger, or should he accept that desire should never only be one's desire but the desire of the other person also? Tom would often enjoy making love with Virginia, but frequently believed it was more meaningful than ecstatic, more pleasurable than exciting, yet when he would think back to his memories of her, the sexual was contained by numerous other thoughts that commingled. Tom's feelings for her did not occupy only one part of his body; Paul would say that was the only part where he wanted someone to reside.
That evening Tom watched his parents together, wondered a little irreverently whether they still had a sexual relationship, and thought that if they did it was probably occasional, meaningful, but not passionate. Yet as he sat there thinking about their sex life, as his mother took the dinner out of the oven, as Tom's father opened the bottle of wine, was he not of course the very product of it, and was Paul, who never knew his parents, unable to know exactly what he was a product of?
The next day Tom saw Paul for lunch before getting the train to London later that afternoon, and from where Tom would catch the overnight to Edinburgh. Tom wanted to talk to him about that strange feeling concerning his desires, Tom's sudden thoughts of his parents' sex life and his equally sudden realisation of his own existence coming out of that sexual congress, but Tom didn't do so because with an hour to go before catching the train, what right did he have to throw Paul into Paul's emotional history? Instead Tom asked him whether, during that week in Edinburgh several years before where he helped Virginia and him with the flat, he went to a parlour in the city. Paul said he did a couple of times, and it was under one of the Bridges, but he couldn't recall the street.
Tom knew the place he was talking about, knew of several parlours around the city, including one in Marchmont, another on London Street and this third one near the Grassmarket as he would think about Paul visiting parlours quite like these - unaware that he had actually visited one of them. Not long after he got back, one evening Tom had two or three pints and then a couple of whiskies with some friends from university, and after they parted to go home to their girlfriends, Tom carried on through the Grassmarket and towards the street where the parlour was. He wasn't very drunk, but he seemed removed from himself, a feeling that maybe he had been experiencing ever since breaking up with Virginia, but exacerbated, perhaps, both by seeing people he had known for a long time but hadn't seen as a group in years and by the alcohol.
He walked along the wide cul de sac to the parlour at the end of it, and knocked on a door that was opened by a man of around forty five dressed in a long black coat and with cropped hair almost entirely grey. Inside, there were several men sitting on one side as if in a waiting room after ordering a taxi, and on the other about the same number of women. However, it seemed the men were waiting for someone else, and as Tom looked across at the women, he couldn't find any of them likely to meet whatever fantasy he would choose to project upon them. A few minutes later, though, two girls came along the corridor and into the waiting area and several of the men stirred. One of the girls looked in her mid-twenties; the other mid-thirties, both glamorous and possibly beautiful. They both had foreign accents, while the girls already sitting there seemed all British, and he suspected they were new to the parlour.
After two of the men went off with them, the person behind the reception asked if he wanted to wait. Tom avoided making eye contact with the girls sitting across from him and said that he would prefer to. He waited for forty five minutes, and during that time a group of boisterous late teens came in, and he recognized them from the pub earlier in the evening. There were four of them and four girls on the other side, and they went off together without any of the fussiness Tom showed. The woman at the reception looked at Tom as if he were a pervert: as if the perversion lay in the notion of choice over the need to satisfy one's sexual instincts. He wondered about the two men who went off with the foreign girls, and supposed they were seen as perverts too. Had they been waiting as long as Tom had, and is that part of the perversity also: the length of time you wait to get the very person you want? The four young men had come in as one might go to the toilet: it was a process of evacuation. Tom was sitting there as if this brief encounter was going to make sense of his life, his relationships, his friendship with Paul and he didn't know what else. If the boys had gone to the parlours as they would to spend a penny; Tom felt for him it was as though he were waiting for some therapeutic enlightenment.
It was the younger of the two who came out first, and it was as though he had indeed dreamt her already. She was dressed in a short skirt and a sleeveless vest and when in the room she arched her back as he remembered the woman doing in his dream, he thought he was back in the dream itself. As she stripped off and stood by the cubicle door ready to take her shower, she asked him to get undressed and to join her. Yet as she said it he was reminded of Mina, and knew that the look on this woman's face was not one of desire but of sadness, a look that knew she had power over him in this moment but no power over her life elsewhere.
He tried as he started to remove his clothes to think of the power she had but her eyes could not hide other feelings: pain, perhaps, contempt, even boredom. He put back on the shoes he had removed and buttoned up again his shirt, and said that she might have been the woman of his dreams but he didn't want to be one of the men in her nightmares. He didn't know whether she understood what he had said, but he probably said it more for himself than for her anyway. As he passed the receptionist, the man gave Tom a look that seemed to confirm Tom was a pervert: as if saying he can wait for an hour but it only takes him a minute to ejaculate.
Walking home, he thought again about the look he saw in the woman's eyes, and wondered what Paul saw when he looked at the many women with whom he had slept and for whom he had paid money to do so. Did Paul see in their eyes what perhaps were also in Paul's: a pain that Tom thought must have been there but which he had been fortunate never to have seen. Paul was self-sufficient, but at what price; a price far greater than it would cost to visit the occasional prostitute? He wanted to phone someone that night: ideally he would have liked to talk to Virginia, possibly his parents, maybe even Paul; even, he thought, Mina: was it not an erotic memory of her that commingled with the young woman at the shower door in the parlour? What he did know was that whatever feeling he had, it was antithetical to the one that he had not so long ago woken up with, that deep wish for an oblivious sexual encounter. It seemed, for whatever reason, and perhaps for many, that this was what he did not want when he moved towards its likely happening. It was as if in some way this thought had also moved him towards a certain notion of adulthood, a maturity, though a horrible word and so limiting, that Paul might never reach, and in his own self-sufficient way, who knows, Paul would never quite need.
© Tony McKibbin