Keep Out Of Lake
Her parents were hippies, obviously. She probably had siblings called Stream and Tree and Dew and Fieldmouse and Aubergine. Except no, because she was American, so the youngest would be Eggplant. Lots of siblings anyway, lots of free love and all that. Probably didn’t even know what a condom was back in their day. Didn’t have to. Not like today, when it’s all ‘don’t share a needle’ and ‘careful who you sleep with’, and god I wish I’d been a teenager in the summer of love. Why’s AIDS got to hit just as I get to university?
This is what I’m thinking as I stand outside her room, reading that old tin sign she’s got pinned on the door, ‘Keep Out Of Lake’, wondering if that’s like ‘Do Not Disturb’ where she comes from, wondering what I’m even doing here tonight.
OK, so I know exactly what I’m doing here tonight. After what’s happened this week, I need someone to talk to. Someone to be with. Someone who understands. And I need Lake to help me find that someone. Or if not to find them, at least make them want to talk and be and understand right back. Because that’s where I always miss out.
I still haven’t knocked. Direct action and me, you see, never really hit it off… I can always find things to distract me. Like wondering what’s happened to the definite article on that sign, presuming its original intent was to keep people out of The lake, i.e. an actual geographical feature rather than just the strange American hippy witch I’m here to see in the hope that she can abracadabra away my loneliness tonight.
A girl goes past in the halls with smudged, post-crying eyes, and I pretend not to notice her. Maybe she could be the one. She obviously shares my grief. But it’s tough. You can’t use that as an opener. Not that. Not now. I couldn’t do that to their memory.
We’ve felt like this since the news broke on Wednesday. Not everyone, obviously. Not everyone gives a shit. For a while I think I might go hang out with the metal kids, or the punks, or even the fucking sad old New Romantics who don’t give a shit. But really, who wants to be seen dead with a Tony Hadley fan, especially right now? At least I’ve settled on someone to blame. Not Morrissey, never Johnny… not even Andy or Mike. No, there’s only one guilty party in this. “Don’t shoot the messenger!” they say. Fuck the messenger, I say. Burn the messenger. Break into WH Smiths (ah, the irony!) and tear up every last copy on the shelf. The fucking NME killed our favourite band, and me, I’m hoping the band kills the NME right back. It’s Melody Maker all the way for me from now on.
When Lake McGill finally opens her door, I’m not sure if she knew I was there, or if she’s just heading down the refectory for a donut. I’d like to think she knew, that’d certainly give me more faith in her abilities, but the look on her face says she’s just as surprised as me.
Flippin’ ‘eck, Tucker, she knows my name! I mean, yeah, we’re in a few seminars together, I’ve see her up the back of the lecture theatre from time to time, but it’s not like either of us are active participants in class. The one time I do remember her contributing was on Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’.
‘I do not know much about gods…’
Made some interesting points too, until the front row peasants started giggling over the way she pronounced ‘buoy’ (“Hooey fooey booey!”) After that, I guess Lake decided to keep her opinions to her essays. You ask me, the American pronunciation makes a hell of a lot more sense given the spelling, and I remember I said so at the time–
“Oh, Lake, sorry, hi… I was just… I was looking at your sign.”
She steps out and follows my gaze. “My brother sent it over for Christmas,” she says. “It’s an actual sign, from this… well, it’s not really a lake, more a swamp really, just outside my hometown. We used to play there when we were kids. Brian always said I should hang that sign on my door. I guess he’s missing me, in his own weird way…”
She’s all in black, not from mourning, but because that’s how she always dresses. Black top, drainpipes, white-laced black trainers, long black hair she peeps out from behind like an actor checking the audience before the curtain goes up.
“I suppose it wouldn’t be as apt without the grammatical inaccuracy,” she continues. “I always used to wonder why they missed out the ‘The’, I mean it’s not like they couldn’t have fit it on there if they’d just budged the ‘of’ over… Still, the fact they didn’t makes it much better suited to my door than…”
She stops, probably thinking I’m going to laugh like the buoy girls did, and I rush to reassure her. “I was just thinking the same thing! What happened to the definite article? I mean…”
I hope she doesn’t think I’m patronising her. I need her help, after all.
“Anyway,” she says, probably meaning ‘I do have other places to be, you know!’. I better get to the point.
“Yeah. Anyway…” I almost bottle it then, which is daft having come all this way. (Lake lives on a completely different floor to me, at the opposite end of the halls from my room – it’s at least a ten-minute walk over here. That’s a long way when you didn’t get much sleep last night.) “Actually, there was something else…”
So I tell her. The whole thing. How every time I ask a girl out, she always says ‘no’. How I haven’t had a date since Sixth Form, and yeah, I know everybody’s being cautious ‘cos of the whole AIDS thing, except, no, nobody’s really being cautious if they’re honest about it, not even Declan. How crazy it makes me that some disgusting, smelly, ignorant, misogynist, loud, obnoxious wanker like Daz Burrows can just walk into the Union and pull half the girls in there, and yet any time I make even the flimsiest of overtures in that vague direction, all I get is the door in my face and…
“I mean, he actually chooses to name himself after a washing powder, and yet still the girls are falling over themselves to go out with him…”
“I’d understand it if he called himself Ariel,” Lake jokes, and it’s weird to see her smiling. Nice weird though. It’s funny how you just don’t notice some people until you actually make an effort.
She invites me in for a coffee, because she’s sure I don’t want to be standing out here talking about my lack of love life amidst the student tumbleweed, and of course she’s right, though I was kind of hoping that the next time a girl invited me into her room (or ‘dorm’, as Lake probably thinks of it) it’d be for the coffee that isn’t coffee… still, at least is a means to that end. Plus, I could really use a good sit down, this being the longest I’ve had to stand without a drink in my hand for about six months. To be honest, I’m getting light-headed.
Inside, the air swims with incense and sandalwood, and a still-soft candle drips on the Formica desktop. Lake’s bed is draped with blankets, her walls with Lennon, Guevara and The Breakfast Club. And then there’s The Smiths, the same Salford Lads Club pose that hangs over my own bed. And I hadn’t even got round to telling her why I need a girlfriend right now more than I’ve ever needed one before.
“I still think they might get back together,” she says, pulling out a chair before busying herself with the coffee.
I hope you’re right, I tell her, but I’ve always been a pessimist.
“So,” she says, once the coffee’s steaming her glasses, “I guess you’re after a spell?”
“Well, I… I mean…” It’s weird: hearing it out loud puts an exclamation mark on all the idiotic rumours that brought me to Lake’s door. Do I seriously believe she cured Sarah Greenhead’s eczema with a lime flower, garlic and margarine poultice? Do I genuinely accept she got Liam Faulkner to bong his baby photos to help him pass his driving test? Most important of all, do I really think Terry Collier got off with Suzie Harring simply because of Lake’s preternatural intervention? I suppose I do, or I wouldn’t be here. But still, hearing it said out loud…
On the side of the coffee jar there’s a ‘Serving Suggestion’. A cup of coffee.
“It’s OK,” she says, stretching her legs on the bed, “There’s pretty much only one reason anyone knocks on that door… and it’s not for my revision notes.” She does that thing where you purse your lips in what might be a smile if it wasn’t so crushingly brave, then asks me the question I don’t have an answer for.
“So then – who is she?”
“Every time you ask a girl out, she responds in the negative. Your friend in the washing powder’s batting a thousand—“
“He’s not my friend. He’s an arseho… sorry, asshole.”
“It’s OK, you don’t have to translate,” she smiles, “haven’t you heard? I’m bilingual.” It’s a brilliant smile (and I’m talking dictionary definition here, not colloquial superlative), and I wonder again why I’ve never noticed that smile before. Why I’ve never noticed–
“Who is she?” she asks again. “The one you want an affirmative from? The girl?”
“Oh, well, erm,” I’m struggling to get across the slightly more complex nature of my circumstances, but luckily Lake’s the kind who hates to leave anyone floundering.
“You’d rather not say, hmm? OK, that’s cool. I understand. Don’t want to jinx it, right?” She purses her lips again, thoughtful this time, not so sad. Except, in her own strange way, every expression turns out sad from Lake, even the brilliant smiles. Especially the brilliant smiles. Suddenly I want to sit next to her and put my arm around her and, shit, do I actually have an answer to her question after all? I certainly didn’t when I came over here; I just wanted to be prepared for the next time it happens. And OK, yeah, it happens on a pretty regular basis, but still, the last thing I expected was for it to happen right now, with the very person I’ve come to for help. God, I hate being 19. I mean, is this some kind of weird Florence Nightingale thing, or is it actually…?
“Here’s what we’ll need,” Lakes says now, mercifully unaware of my dilemma. She takes a notepad from her desk and unzips a fluffy pencil case. “The top off her peanut butter jar – or jam, if that’s her preference. A page from her lecture notebook. Be considerate, try not to leave gaps she’ll miss when it comes round to revision time. A glass she’s drunk beer from in the Student Union. It doesn’t have to be beer, but beer’s best for this kind of thing – and if she’s left a smudge of lipstick on the rim, that’s all the better. And finally…”
“Wait a minute,” I say, because this is all getting way too complicated – and besides, I suddenly have an urgent need to stroke Lake’s collarbone. “How am I supposed to get all this stuff?”
“Well, that’s up to you. You’ll find a way, if you really want to.”
I sigh. “Does it have to be so… complicated?”
“Well, there is another way…”
“You could just talk to her, make her laugh, ask her about herself, be kind, considerate—“
“OK, let’s get back to the list. What else do we need?”
When Lake laughs, it’s like jackpot on a fruit machine.
“A hair from her head and a coin from her pocket.”
“A hair? How the hell am I supposed to get a hair?” This is getting mental now. Besides, I can’t ask her to put a spell on herself, can I? Though maybe if she shows me how to do the spell, she doesn’t have to know who it’s for… does she?
Is it really possible to fall in love this fast?
“James – people lose hairs all the time.” She reaches out and lifts one from my jacket. “See?”
And suddenly I realise. Exactly what’s happening. Why I came here today on this ridiculous quest. Why within minutes of knocking on Lake’s door, all I can think about is her. Why I’m already picturing us walking out to where her brother stole that rusty old sign, an empty post to remind us of our first conversation…
“Tell me something,” I say, putting down my coffee and rolling back on my castors, “you ever use this kind of spell for yourself?”
A little too fast, she says no. Yes, sometimes she’s been tempted, but she doesn’t want someone with her just because he’s bewitched. She’s not interested in that… only the real thing. One day someone’ll come to that door, and they won’t just be here for a spell.
She almost convinces me too.
I make my excuses and get the hell out of there.
For the next few weeks, I walk around with Lake’s face behind my eyelids. God, she’s good. She really is. And she’s gorgeous, and she’s sweet, and she likes The Smiths, and she’s obviously not got AIDS, and really she’s everything I’ve been looking for… but like she said, do I really want to be with someone just because I’m bewitched?
There now follows another gratuitous sex scene between me and my hand. At least we know that’s the real thing.