To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before

“What’ll it be, bud?”

“Whisky. Doubles. Line ‘em up. And keep ‘em coming till I tell you otherwise.”

“Sure thing, pal… It’s a woman, right?”

“Ha! No. No, it’s not a woman. It’s not a woman… it’s all of them, man. Every single… Look, you really want to hear this? You really want to…?”

“Hey, it’s a slow night. I sometimes find a story helps pass it quicker. Only if you want to though.”

“Yeah. Yeah, why not? You just keep ‘em coming like this first one. This first one’s to Penny, see? We were eight years old. She was the cat and I was the dog. That’s what we… playtime, in the schoolyard. She’d meow, I’d woof. It was just a silly game, but… The other lads, they took the piss. ‘Evan’s got himself a girlfriend!’ ‘Go on, Evan, snog her!’ ‘Penny and Evan, sitting in a tree…’ One day she kissed me. I was too young to know what it meant, but I didn’t think I liked it. I mean, I did, but… The other lads… I told her I didn’t want to be her friend anymore. She cried. They always cry, but at that age, everybody cries if they don’t get their own way, right? We were supposed to walk home together – she lived just down the road from me, our mums were friends. But I was sick of the other lads laughing, doing that thing where they hug themselves and move their hands up and down their backs and make kissy noises and… So I left her to walk home by herself.”

“Something… happened?”

“Yeah. Yeah, something happened. The next day she was hanging out with Andy Cooper instead of me. She came up to me in the playground and told me straight. Andy Cooper was a cat too. Just like her. Except he was a Persian! If I’d been older and smarter, I might have told her Persians don’t even have tails, but I was too young, and I was… I was just a dumb dog. And Penny hated dogs. Dogs were rubbish. Dogs were… Dogs, I guess, they didn’t have the courage of their convictions.”

“Thank you. Now, this one… This one’s to Cassie. Cassie Broadbent. We were fifteen. She played piano and violin and we used to hang out in the music block on a lunchtime. She was in the year below me, but that was how it went at that age, you know? All my mates who had birds – that’s what we used to call them, you remember? ‘Is she your bird?’ Somewhere along the way, someone decided ‘bird’ was offensive to women, which I never really… I mean, if I were a woman, I don’t think I’d mind being a bird. Birds are pretty, right? Graceful. Sweet and mel… mellifluous…”

“Apart from crows.”

“Yeah, I suppose. Apart from crows.”

“And magpies. Magpies are nasty little buggers…”

“OK, yeah. I’ll give you—“

“And pigeons. I hate pigeons.”

“Look – do you want to talk about birds? I mean, if you’d rather…”

“Sorry. Sorry, go on. Tell me about Cassie Broadbent.”

“OK. Yeah. Cassie… pour. Pour and I’ll… To Cassie Broadbent! I remember one time she was dancing. She was playing this music on the stereo in one of the music rooms, it was some kind of samba or… one of those Spanish dances where you swish your skirt tails like… you know, swish… and I was looking at her legs. Couldn’t help myself. Every time she swished her skirt, I saw a little bit more of her legs, and I was fifteen, you know – I hadn’t learned not to stare yet. And Cassie – I remember exactly what she said because I played it back in my head so many times over the next few nights, I might as well have taped it off the radio… She said, ‘I really need to shave my legs – even though they’re getting all downy… because it’s getting on towards winter. I’m letting ‘em grow to keep me warm. I’ll shave them in the Spring.’ I think it was the most erotic thing I’d ever heard in my life. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to ask her out so much, but I couldn’t even breathe. I mean, it was just the two of us, in that tiny little room, with the hum of the ventilation that you could always hear in the music block – it was supposed to be soundproofed, but that only made the ventilation sound louder – it was just the two of us, and she was talking about shaving her legs, and she wasn’t embarrassed or anything… and I wanted to ask her but I couldn’t.”

“You never did?”

“I got my mate to do it instead. Julian. Or at least he was supposed to… you know, sound her out. Try and do it all subtly like, without actually revealing that I… so if she didn’t, if she wasn’t – it wouldn’t be like she knew I… We could still be friends, she wouldn’t be all uncomfortable around me, like girls get when they know you’re in love with them but all they really want is to be your mate. But Julian… Julian messed it up. Cassie got the wrong idea. She thought it was actually him who was interested, she thought… And he was a bit of a lad, Julian. Bit of a catch. A lot of the girls – a lot of Cassie’s mates, they fancied him rotten. And I guess, while he was talking to her, while he was supposed to be sounding her out for me, I guess Julian realised he had a shot there himself. And he was my mate, yeah, but not so much that he’d let that… Come on, we were fifteen.”

“Bastard.”

“Yeah. Maybe. But to be honest, I couldn’t… I’d have done the same thing, I reckon. Not that he’d have ever asked me to get involved like that, but… Give me another. Give me one for Olivia.”

“Olivia?”

“I was a fresher at Dundee. Only university that’d let me in. I’d have ended up at the poly if it wasn’t for Dundee. Olivia was from London. Kensington – but not the posh part. Still way posher than I was used to. I’d never met anyone from London before. It might as well have been another dimension. She drank Vodka Martinis and Gimlets and White Russians and Moroccans… I just tried to keep up. When we got really drunk, and we ran out of cigarettes, we’d order a taxi to bring us another packet from the all night garage. It’d cost us like a tenner just for a packet of fags, and neither of us had the money, but we were… We were pissed when we met, pissed when she went back to mine, pissed when we screwed, pissed all the time we were together. Then they threatened to throw me off the course, and I had to get it together or… I had to stop drinking. And she tried to join me, to support me… but all the places we went together, all the bars and the clubs… sober, we just saw them for the shitholes they really were. It was embarrassing. Things we’d taken for granted… our world before had been all brick and neon and plastic – but sober, we started noticing things like trees and grass and… Other things. Prettier things. And I guess Olivia starting noticing prettier people too. I mean, for me, just about the only thing that didn’t look different sober was her. She obviously couldn’t say the same thing…”

“You OK, bud?”

“Oh yeah. Long way to go yet. Look, you don’t have to stay with me. I can do it by myself. I’ve had plenty of practise.”

“I don’t mind. It’s still early. But maybe you ought to—“

“Hit me.”

“I just mean…”

“Hit me. Or leave me the bottle. It’s time for Zoë, and I’ll probably need more than a double for… Anyway you’ll like this next bit. People usually do. It’s got lots of sex in it. I mean, we were both the right age. I was twenty-one, Zoë was thirty-five. You wouldn’t have known it to look at her, but to sleep with her – she couldn’t have been anything else. Two, three, four times a… It felt like we were at it all the time. Maybe if we actually had been, I reckon maybe we might have stayed together. Because we didn’t have a problem while we were doing it. The problems only came before, and after – in between – when we weren’t…”

“We argued about everything. About the best place to park, about what film we wanted to watch at the cinema, about whatever the politicians were fucking up that week. We argued about what was the best way to cook potatoes and who was the greatest Beatle and where we wanted to go on our holidays. We even argued about how much we argued. And in the early days that was fine, because it was all some kind of foreplay. We’d have ourselves a row, scream at each other till we were hoarse, till the tension was so thick it was like cake mix in the air, and then… and then, bang! Every time. Without fail. And my mistake was, I thought it’d always be like that. I thought Zoë enjoyed it just as much as I did. I thought… I’m empty here. In case you hadn’t…”

“Thank you. Do you know what our final argument was all about? It was so bloody stupid. The inequality of onscreen nudity. Hollywood – not like porno’s or anything. Zoë didn’t have a problem with movie sex scenes, as long as she thought they weren’t focussing on the women any more than the men. There had to be an equivalent amount of action – which is fair enough, I suppose… except we just couldn’t agree on what was equal. Does a cock shot equal a slow lingering tit pan? No, surely a cock’s worth more than tits? But then – what’s the equivalent of tits? A bloke’s chest? That’s nothing… My argument was, women have more sexy bits than men, so there was no way to… I mean, pretty much with a bloke all you’ve got is the cock and the balls, right? I mean, the arse, yeah – but an arse is an arse is an arse, male or female – they should cancel each other out. And also – a vadge, unless you’ve got some kind of shaved and spread close-up… which, Sharon Stone aside, you’re not going to get out of Hollywood – if it’s just the bush, surely that’s way less graphic than a stiffy… I mean… ha… stiffy… Zoë, she reckoned that if you showed one, you had to show the other… and we kept… she was really getting wound up about… whereas me, I’m thinking this is all just a prelude to another fantastic carnal… I’m getting as much mileage out of the whole thing as I possibly… And then – and then she just stops. Gets up and walks out. Just like that. One argument too far, and I never saw her again. She wouldn’t take my calls, wouldn’t come to the door, she wouldn’t even… Hoo! Which brings us to Alison…”

“Maybe you ought to call it a night now, bud.”

“What, you don’t want to hear about Alison?”

“I just think maybe you’ve had enough for one night.”

“Hmm… No, not yet. I’ve got a few more to go yet. Quite a few more. And you know, I reckon this time… I reckon there might just be enough to finish… I’ve been reading up on it, see – how much alcohol the body can take in rapid sexsussion. Ha! Sexsussion! In rapid… You see, every time another one of ‘em breaks my heart like this, every time hurts worst than the last. You’d think it’d get easier, but… Nooooo. No no no no no. And the booze doesn’t even numb it any more, doesn’t even… anaesthetize. Yeah! You impressed? ‘Anaes-thet-ize’? I’ve got a long way to go if I can still say… and I’ve a lot more women to get through, before I’m through. Before… Last time I just passed out, see? But they pumped my stomach and… They told me if I hadn’t stopped when I did…”

“Look – I’m not going to help you… I’m sorry, you’ve had enough. Go home and sleep it off.”

“You’re cutting me off?”

“It’s not worth it, bud. They’re not worth it. None of them. Believe me, you’ll thank me in the morning.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you say that… You say that, but I haven’t even begun to tell you about Alison. Or Nicola. Or Nadine. Fucking Nadine…”

“Another time, eh? I’ll still be here tomorrow night. You can pick right up where you left off then. You can…”

“OK, then. OK, my man. Thank you. Thank you! You’re a good man, barkeep! You’re a good… I’ll see you around. I’ll see you… good night. Good night. I’ll see you around…”

*** *** ***

“What can I get you, sir?”

“Whisky. Doubles. Line ‘em up and keep ‘em coming till I tell you otherwise. Now. Where was I…? To Alison! Alison… Ross. That was her surname. Yeah. Alison Ross. Women’s Rugby International. I ever tell you how I dated an international women’s rugby player, barkeep?”

“I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure, sir.”

“Scrumpox. You know what that is? Rash they get, rugby players, on their neck, from close… You know they put Tiger Balm on their fingertips too, try and get it in their opponent’s eyes, down in the tackle? Believe me, that’ll sting, a woman hasn’t washed the Tiger Balm from her fingers before she gets all handy with her fella, like – I mean, take it from one who’s been on the receiving end. Oops – I’m empty already. Same again, my friend…”

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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