Read Noughties Online

Authors: Ben Masters

Tags: #General Fiction


BOOK: Noughties
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Ben Masters

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd, London.

HOGARTH is a trademark of the Random House Group Limited, and the H colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

Curtis Brown, Ltd: Excerpt from “Oxford,” copyright © 1938 by W. H. Auden, renewed, from
Another Time
by W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

New Directions Publishing Corp.: Excerpts from “Marriage” by Gregory Corso, from
The Happy Birthday of Death
, copyright © 1960 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

eISBN: 978-0-307-95567-8

Jacket design by Ben Wiseman
Jacket retouching: Tal Goretsky
Jacket photographs: (table, glass) Tamara Staples, (matchbook, ashtray)
David Bradley, Photography, (cigarette on front cover) Maren Caruso


For my parents

With thanks to Georgia Garrett

Simon Prosser

and Zachary Wagman

And is that child happy with his box of lucky books

And all the jokes of learning? Birds cannot grieve:

Wisdom is a beautiful bird; but to the wise

Often, often is it denied

To be beautiful or good

, “Oxford”


“Ah mate.”

This is how it begins. This is how it always begins. Four flat characters sitting round a table, with our pints of snakebite, our pints of diesel.

“Ah mate.”

We contort our faces into gruesome grandeur, gurning with eloquence and verve: Scott with his question-mark nose, Jack with his inverted-comma eyebrows, Sanjay with his square-bracket ears. Nodding and grunting and twitching our legs, we clutch our carbonated weapons of mass destruction.

“Ah mate.”

My name is Eliot Lamb. I’m the one with the fierce mane. Utterly fantastic it is: blond, wavy, thick, and full of spunk. You can tell I’ve gone to a lot of effort with the old creams and unguents, but it is a special occasion after all: it’s our last night at university. I’ve even cultivated some designer stubble, sprinkled over my rosy face like Morse code, with all its dots and dashes. And if the code was readable it would go something like this:
There’s a lot on my mind tonight, pal—oh such a lot—and things could get very messy

We are in the King’s Arms, Oxford, rainy weekend eve, unfortunate travelers fumbling our way into the sticky crotch of a night on the lash.

“Ah mate.”

This is the end, beautiful friend, the end. Our university finale; the last time we’ll ever do this. The real world snaps viciously at our cracked-skin heels, groaning of jacket-and-tie, briefcase-headcase, hair-receding, tumble-dry mortality. I stare into the bottom of my pint glass and glimpse faint outlines of the infinite. I gaze into the abyss.

Sip, sip, chug: “A​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h​h”—four pressurized valves released and relieved, letting off steam.

“I needed that,” blurts Jack, right on cue.

Scott: “Anyone else out tonight?”

(A droopy old man falters past. He wears the heady bonfires and dissident blossoms of the cool summer air, stirring fragrances of ale and tobacco.)

“I sent a loada texts” (that’s me). My tripwire legs are vibrating beneath the table, compulsive and anxious. “Some of the girls are coming in a bit,” I add judiciously. Rhyming nods of solemn approval. Jack traces his high-rise quiff just to make sure it’s still there.

Glug, glug, swallow.

The phone in my pocket chatters, clamping after my testicles with cancerous claw. I don’t reach for it. It’ll be Lucy.

She rang just before I came out, but I was a bit hesitant and evasive, needing to fix myself for the big night—picking the right shirt, nailing the hair, generally ogling the mirror in a you-talking-to-me-type fashion—and also being at an awkward place in my character development: I already have something pressing to face up to … something that needs to be dealt with,
. I do feel bad about Lucy though. She sounded, well, nervous; lost
somehow. It was all the preambling that got in the way:
Where are you, are you on your own, please don’t overreact to what I have to say
. I was running late and that was valuable time spent already. Only now I have the feeling that it was something important … must’ve been … I mean, we don’t really talk on the phone anymore, and my promise to call her later seemed desperately inadequate. I should’ve just heard her out. But she was the last person I wanted to speak to, given my plans for tonight.

Maybe I’ll send her a text in a bit.

She doesn’t go here—Oxford, that is—not being the academic type. She’ll be making a lot of appearances though, whether haunting from the margins or dancing resplendent across my imagination, and she’s playing on my mind already.

“Ah mate.”

The King’s Arms is filled to spilling point. Students run rampant in red-cheeked naïveté. With military-front precision the place bares its insistent demographics: flowery thespians with lager for Yorick skulls; meathead rugby players (cauliflower-eared, broccoli-beard, potato-reared) floundering in homoeroticism; red-corduroyed socialites with upturned collars and likewise noses; bohemian Billies and Brionys, all scarves, hats, and paisley skirts; indie chics and glam gloss chicks; crushed-velvet Tory boys feigning agedness; pub golfers and fancy-dress bar crawlers; lads and ladettes, chavs and chavettes; and the locals, frowning at the whole motley spectacle. And then there’s us: the noughties. We are quotidian calamities; unwitting lyricisms; veritable Wordsworths out on the razz, lugging twentieth-century regret on our backs.

How to convey the gang to you … Scott, Jack, and Sanjay … Well, I like to buttonhole people; fasten them in nice and tight wherever I see fit and wait for the holes to sag. The buttons begin to shuffle and slide, impatient with the restriction. And then—the hold worn, no longer adequate—they break free. Excuse the ready exchange of metaphors, but as Augie March says, there is no accuracy or fineness of suppression; if you hold one thing down you hold the adjoining. My style is to hold
down, as firmly as possible, and hope that only the most vigorous stuff rises.

So, there’s Jack, still my best mate (I think) and clown extraordinaire. Right now he’s clenching a pint of Stella and wearing a white-collared blue shirt (sleeves rolled, top three buttons undone), flashing a hairless chest with each flap of the loose collar, his shortish brown cut molded to aerodynamic specifications. Next to Jack is Scott, rocking a sprawl of auburn without styling gel (he’s private school and they don’t really do hair product like us staties). Scott’s drinking Kronenbourg and chancing a pink shirt. He’s bigger than the rest of us, being a college rower and rugby player, but he has the softer disposition, his various insecurities taking the edge off his muscles. Jack and I have affected occasional gym regimes ourselves, though we never actually change shape or size, clinging to our coat-hanger frames and the self-assuring consolation that “girls don’t like big men.” They don’t. Muscle freaks them out. Still, we bought a barrel of protein shake at the start of our second year, hoping it might prove the key to the kind of rapid muscle development we felt we deserved. I was happy just mixing the potion in with a glass of milk after each workout, while Jack all-out binged on the stuff, sprinkling it on his cornflakes, dipping crisps and chocolate bars, pouring it into his bedside glass of water, even layering
it on top of his toothpaste. Naturally our bodies stayed stubbornly put: no tightening of skin, no swell of veins, no progression in shirt size. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not runts or anything … just bothersomely average. And finally there’s Sanjay (Stella), wearing his black Fred Perry with the white trimming. It’s his “lucky” shirt, though I can’t testify to the accuracy of the appellation. If it does attract the fairer sex it’s certainly not working its voodoo tonight: our table is demonstrably cock heavy. Sanjay has a little blinking tic going on. Every now and then he is able to shake it off, but as soon as you remind him (“Hey, Sanj, I haven’t seen you do the blink in ages”) it returns (“Oh, for fuck sake” wink wink). You want to know what I’m wearing too? Black jeans, on the skinnier side of slim fit, and a blue and white check shirt. Stella.

We’re over at the quiz machine, slurping our student loans and tossing shrapnel into the slot. Gather round …

Brideshead Revisited
what is the name of Sebastian’s teddy bear?

A: Paddington
B: Rupert
C: Aloysius
D: Baloo

Drink while you think.

“C’mon, Eliot, you do English,” says Jack.

English. I’m finished now, ain’t I?” I protest. “How the fuck should I know anyway?” Jack, a physicist, has always wondered what exactly it is that I
know—literature as an academic pursuit being entirely mysterious to him—and is looking at me doubtfully. The only social utility of my subject that he can make out is its occasional propensity for sparking progress on quiz machines, as well as select rounds
University Challenge
. “But yeah,” I add. “It’s definitely Aloysius.”

English: I’ve served three years. Pulling all-nighters over weekly essays, arguing indefensible points with unswerving commitment, and defying all common sense with consistent ill-logic, I’ve completed my subject. English. I’m nearly fluent now, mate. But what next? Back to Wellingborough I guess. (I feel it closing in like an obscene womb, pulling me into its suffocating folds …) And then what?

“Fuck yeah,” shouts Jack, selecting the correct answer.

There goes my phone again. Lucy.

Why did I have to mention Lucy so early on? I promised myself that I wouldn’t. It makes things so much harder than they already are. Perhaps that’s why I was reluctant to talk to her earlier. Too late now—she’s gone and hooked herself into the night’s narrative. It’s fitting, I suppose … she was with me at the start of this Oxford story, and now she’s making her presence felt at its end.

BOOK: Noughties
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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