I still remember the day Samantha moved into the house. To be honest, it wasn't her moving in that made it memorable: a thaw had just followed a sudden cold snap and had led to a burst pipe which flooded the cellar. I had stowed a lot of stuff down there during the Christmas break, including my box full of imported, under-the-counter porno mags, most of which turned to an expensive and soggy pulp. I also lost a few text books. I tried to get the landlord to claim against his insurance for my stuff, but I never saw a penny of it. He probably got the money and kept it. He seemed like the type.
In amongst all the excitement, I hardly noticed our new tenant. I think I was coming out of the cellar with another bin bag full of unidentifiable wet mess when I walked past her in the hallway. She didn't make much of an impression as she was too short and thin for my tastes; I like women who are tall, but not freakishly so, and with a bit of meat on them. There was almost something childlike about Samantha's build, which is a real turn-off for me. She said "hi" in passing, and I did the same.
I added the bag to the small pile outside the front door and carried on trying to salvage what I could.
There were eight of us in the house, which was subdivided into a series of one bedroom flats. Mine was the smallest, on the top floor. The angle of the roof made the ceiling diagonal. The previous occupant had painted a mural on the slope. I think it was supposed to be something out of an H. P. Lovecraft story. Every time I went to bed I looked up at this tentacled beastie. I'd like to think over the two years I lived there we became friends. Anyway, I was lying back on the bed, staring at it, sulking about the water damage, when I heard the music start up next door.
The walls in the house were pretty thin. One of the reasons I had taken such a shitty room in the first place was that no one was in the room next to it. It was the only one of the eight rooms not to be taken in the first term. I had hoped it would stay like that all year, but I'd heard just before the Christmas break that we were getting a new tenant. At the very least, I could have hoped for someone with reasonable taste in music, but it was not to be.
Wearily, I hauled myself out of bed and into the corridor. I hammered on the door with the flat of my hand. After a couple of seconds the music was turned down and Samantha opened the door. She looked sweaty and somewhat flustered. "What?" she asked.
"At some point I'll probably be putting some music on," I said, "And when I do you'll discover just how thin these walls are."
She flushed slightly and looked away. "Sorry. I suppose it wasa bit loud."
"That's all right. I wouldn't mind if it didn't sound so shite. What was it anyway?" I realised I was leaning on the doorframe with both hands, filling the doorway. I'm not a small man and this was probably a bit intimidating. I decided I didn't want to intimidate and crossed my arms instead.
"Hawkwind," she said. " 'Space Ritual'."
"Jesus. Does anyone listen to Hawkwind any more? Besides you, I mean."
Samantha shrugged. Looking at her now, close up like this, I could see that she was a bit prettier that I'd thought at first. Her hair was too short, but she wore a long fringe in the front. It was nice and dark. Under the fringe I could just make out two large brown eyes. They looked like they would be really striking if she brushed her hair out of the way.
"Well, if you feel like joining the rest of us in the new millennium, there's a good dance music place in the town centre. They do a lot of imports, all on twelve inch vinyl. I'll let you know next time I'm going. You can tag along."
"Thanks anyway, but I'll give it a miss. I'd better get back to unpacking."
"Oh, aye. I'll let you get on with it." I started turning away and then stopped. "I'm Alasdair, by the way."
"I know. Jamie mentioned you'd be moving in."
"Oh yeah." She looked up at me and flicked her hair aside. I'd been right about her eyes. "What did he say about me?"
"Not a lot."
"That's all right, then," she said, and closed the door.
Samantha's room was a lot quieter over the next few days. I didn't even see her around the house, and I probably forgot she was there. Well, mostly. Not at all, really.
When I had started at university I had the idea in my head that it would be one long debauched daze of alcohol, parties and girls. So far only the alcohol had made any impact on my life, and even then not enough of one. My student loan covered most of the essentials, but left little over for boozing. My friend Jamie worked evenings in the bar at the student union and tried to convince me to do the same for the extra income. What was the point, I asked him, of getting the extra money in by working all the hours I'd be wanting to spend it? His attempts to convince me got more and more half-hearted until they stopped altogether.
My luck with women had been non-existent. Some of the lads on my course seemed to fall naturally into the whole social thing as soon as they started at university, but I kept finding that even when I got the courage up to talk to girls I always said the wrong thing. I was no good at just walking up to a girl I didn't know and convincing her that I was an essential, but missing, part of her life. What I needed, I decided, was to find a girl that I could let get to know me, to discover the inner me that any sane woman would just have to adore, all without the pressure of the chat-up. Until Samantha had moved in, the only woman in the house was Elaine, who not only had a boyfriend, but was all but living with him in her room. No one had complained, but if she hadn't been living on the ground floor I'm sure the squeaking of their bedsprings would have driven a downstairs neighbour to either kill them or report them to the landlord. Now that there was another woman in the house, and one that appeared to be unattached, I thought I might have a chance after all. So she wasn't my type, or, from first impressions, even slightly attractive to me. Nobody's perfect.
I was sitting in the kitchen, having my lunch and thinking about all this when Samantha walked in. She was wearing a big, shapeless sweater and baggy jeans. All the clothes that I had seen her wear looked like they had been bought for someone much larger than her. Maybe she had lost a lot of weight and hadn't had the money to buy any new clothes. I remember thinking what a waste it was, that she might look a lot sexier dressed in some girly clothes.
"You just up then?" she asked, squatting down to look in the fridge. Her jeans pulled tightly across her arse. It was a bit nicer that I'd thought at first, with a good, meaty curve to it.
"Eh? I've been up and about for ages. I'm just back from the world's most boring maths lecture."
Samantha carried a couple of carrots and an onion over to the work surface. "What was it about, then?"
"No idea. After about five minutes my brain seized up. Why'd you ask if I was just up?"
She started dicing the carrots, using quick, hard chops. I wondered if she'd still have the same number of fingers at the end. "You're eating cereal," she said.
"People normally have cereal for breakfast. Therefore, I assumed _you_ were having breakfast."
I shook my head sadly. "You've still got a lot to learn about student life. Cereal is our friend. It's quick and easy to make, requires no cooking and contains most of the nutrients you need to survive. The best thing about it, though, is it's cheap. Sometimes I eat nothing else for days on end." I patted my stomach. "Keeps your bowels working properly, too."
"Thanks. I'll remember that if I ever run out of money or get chronic constipation."
I picked the plastic bowl up and drank the last of the milk. "That's the best bit. Maybe I can make my fortune by collecting the milk from the bottom of cereal bowls and selling it as a drink."
"I'm sure with your spit in it, I'm sure no one would be able to resist." She gathered the diced carrots in her hands and put them on a side plate.
"True. You want me to do the onion for you? It's one of the few good things about wearing glasses. They seem to stop me crying over onions."
She looked back over her shoulder at me. She didn't smile. "That's all right, thanks. It takes more than an onion to make me cry."
"Fine. Just offering." I sat and looked at the empty bowl. Are you going to do anything, I asked myself, or are you just going to sit here and make even more of an arse out of yourself? I knew I'd feel relieved if I just stuck to smalltalk, but later, when I was alone in my room, I'd get all the usual self-loathing stuff. Compromise, I thought: let's see if anything happens naturally.
"So, what are you doing," I asked.
"Making a stiry-fry. What does it look like?"
"Ha-bloody-ha. No, I mean what are you studying?"
Samantha stopped chopping and turned around, leaning on the counter. "I'm doing a doctorate in biochemistry."
"Really? Wow. You look way too young to be doing a doctorate." When she frowned at me I started back-peddling as best I could. I guessed I must have hit a nerve. "I mean, you look good for your age, or something. Shit. What have I said?"
"Don't worry. I get that a lot. I'm a bit older than I look." She crossed her arms and looked down at the floor.
"Biochemistry, eh? What are you looking into?"
"What are you studying?"
"Computer Science. Why?"
"Well, if it's not biochemistry, it's going to be way too much hard work explaining what I do. Let's just say it involves killing a lot of fruit flies."
"You mean Drosophila? See, I know something."
She laughed quietly. "I guess I misjudged you, then."
I leaned back in my seat and tried to look casual. "So, how do you feel about younger men?"
"What?" She looked up and made eye contact. It was not a welcoming look. "What are you getting at?"
"I was only going to ask you out. Is that a problem?"
She turned back and started chopping her onion. "I suppose I should thank you. Still, I don't need anyone in my life right now. I have a lot of work to do and there isn't a lot of time left over for anything else. That includes men, younger or otherwise."
I picked up my bowl and took it over to the sink. "OK. That's fine." Once in the sink the bowl was sucked down by the soapy water. Flecks of cereal floated to the surface. "I'd better go off and do some work myself."
"I hope I haven't hurt your feelings."
"No. Not at all."
"Good. Still friends, then?"
"Yeah. Still friends."
I started walking up the stairs to my room. Friends, eh? Well, that gave us something to build on.
The next day I sold a few old CDs to the local record exchange and decided to get wrecked. It would have been a shame to have a bit of spare money and not do something stupid with it. I was hoping to convince Samantha to come along to the student union bar with me, but she must have been in the lab or something. I suppose her work was pretty interesting, as I hardly ever saw her around the house. I've never been able to get obsessed about work, but I envy people who can get that way. Work just seems like, well, hard work to me.
We used to have a pretty good bar at the union. It was unpretentious, with plain wooden benches and tables, ragged and stained wallpaper and carpets and a jukebox that played much too loud. Halfway through my first year some bright spark decided that it looked too downmarket and redecorated it. The bar closed for a few weeks, mostly over the Easter break, and when it opened it had acquired glass topped tables, molded plastic seats and potted plants. Potted plants, for God's sake! The jukebox was turned down to a manageable level and the lighting was brought up to eliminate any of the nice, friendly, dark corners I used to love. They changed the name to The Oasis Bar. I don't know if it had had a name before. The only good thing they did was put in a pinball machine.
After the redecoration, I swore I'd take my business elsewhere. I lasted one night before I was reminded what a difference the subsidy made to the price of drinks. I suppose I could get to like potted plants.
It was a Tuesday night and the place was pretty deserted. On a Friday or Saturday you'd be lucky to get to the bar and be served more than three or four times before last orders. On a Tuesday you could sit at the bar, which is what I was doing. Jamie was serving and looked almost as bored as I felt. In between orders, we chatted.
"How's Bridget, then?" Bridget was Jamie's sometime girlfriend. They broke up and got back together regularly, and I was never quite sure whether it was a good idea to ask after her. I could usually tell when they got back together, though; they tended to patch things up with a marathon shagging session. Bridget was a bit of a screamer. The first time it happened I thought someone downstairs was watching a porno film with the volume up way too high.
"Oh, aye, you know." Jamie finished pulling a pint of export and shouted a price to the lad standing behind me.
I nodded like I did know. It saved having to guess whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. "How did you two get together in the first place? Was it dead romantic?"
Jamie crossed his arms and leaned on the bar. His eyes drifted out of focus, or so it looked. "I suppose so. She was in here one night, not long after freshers' night, with a whole group of her friends. She was wearing this short black skirt and I kept staring at her legs."
Wasn't likely to be her face, I thought, but decided to keep it to myself.
"Anyway, after an hour or two of this, she comes up to the bar and asks, 'What are you looking at?' 'You,' I say. 'Could have fooled me,' she says, 'Your eyes haven't looked anywhere above my arse all night'." Jamie scratched an armpit and looked wistful. "It all kind of fell into place after that."
"So you knew she was the one for you?"
"Don't be stupid. I'm still not sure she's the one. She is fun, though." He walked down the bar and took an order from a guy who, if he wasn't a rugby player, was going to spend most of his life being mistaken for one. I hoped there weren't any others around, as I was enjoying the quiet. Jamie finished serving him and came back. "Why're you asking, anyway?"
"Just asking," I said. Jamie raised an eyebrow. "Well, OK. Don't mention this to anyone, but I was wondering what it felt like. I've never actually had a real girlfriend." His eyebrow went up any further. I remember thinking if I said anything else to get him started he'd pull a muscle. "Don't get me wrong. I'm not a virgin. I've just never had what you'd call a relationship. I was just wondering how they got started."
"Why? You got someone in mind?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'm just fucking desperate. I've been trying to ask Samantha out, but even she's hardly succumbing to my charm. Still, she said we were friends. That's got to be a start."
"Samantha?" Jamie gestured over my shoulder. "Be with you in a minute. Samantha? You're joking."
"Is she that bad, then? I mean, she's no oil painting, but..."
Jamie shook his head. "I meant that she's a bit, well, weird. Don't you find that? I've only spoken to her a few times, but there's something about her I don't like. She's all spikes and sharp edges."
"I know what you mean. She seems a bit stand-offish, and she's a weirdo all right. She even listens to Hawkwind, for Christ's sake. Still, she seems nice enough."
"Hang on a sec." Jamie disappeared to serve a few more drinks. I sat and wondered what it was that kept drawing me back to Samantha. I'd already got the idea that we weren't going anywhere, but at the same time I didn't want to stop trying. Maybe she'd give in before I gave up. Even if she didn't, I'd have tried, at least. That was more than I usually did.
"Alasdair? You looked miles away." Jamie was standing in front of me, waving a hand before my eyes. "You've got it bad, haven't you?"
"Ach, don't be stupid. I'm just getting a bit pissed, that's all."
"On three pints? If you say so. You look smitten to me."
"Nothing's going to happen. I don't know why I'm even bothering."
We both leaned on the bar, facing each other, but looking in opposite directions. I thought about ordering another drink, just to break the silence, but my stomach was feeling acidic and I was getting more miserable the more I drank.
"I know," said Jamie.
"From what you say, she's a bit of an old hippy. Go and see Franklin. I'm sure he's got the keys to her heart."
Franklin was the campus dealer. I'm sure he wasn't the only one, but I didn't know any others. As far as dealers go, I don't think he was a very good one. I imagine dealing drugs, with all its risks, must have a pretty high profit margin. Franklin was always dressed really badly, in clothes that looked like they'd been rejected by Oxfam. Dealers are supposed to drive BMWs. Franklin rode a push bike, and not even a mountain bike at that. He always looked pretty healthy, so I assume all his money wasn't going into feeding a habit. Maybe he was just saving for an early retirement, but it appeals to my sense of humour to think he was just crap.
I went over to his room, in one of the mini tower blocks that served as halls of residence, and asked him what was on the menu. Fairly quickly I ruled out the Nepalese temple balls: opiated hash just makes me fall asleep. It's hard to woo when you're comatose. I was tempted by the Afghani black, but it gets a bit too heavy for me. Also, a friend once told me that they wrap the blocks in cellophane, but often don't bother removing it before they chop it up for resale. Compared to that, the idea of something cut with camel shit sounds all right. In the end I settled for some skunk. Skunk scares me sometimes, but treated with respect it's fun and gives more bangs per buck than anything else except acid or white cider.
The cost of an eighth wiped out what I had earned by selling three CDs. All right, so they weren't very good CDs, but I still hoped it would be worth it.
It was a little after nine by the time I got back to the house. I went in the back door and straight into the kitchen. Samantha was sitting at the table, drinking coffee and looking miserable.
"Bad day at the office, luv?" I asked.
She looked at and smiled half-heartedly. "Fucking awful, but thanks for asking. Things aren't going so well at the lab. My supervisor keeps expecting results, but everything's going way too slowly. I know I should be working harder, but I'm beginning to feel burned out already. Sorry. I'm going on, aren't I?"
"Don't worry. I asked, didn't I? Anyway, I may just have the answer to all your problems."
She cocked her head to one side. "That would be a pretty good trick. What have you got in mind?"
I tossed the zip-loc bag of skunk on the kitchen table. "How does that sound?"
"It sounds pretty damn good," she said. "Genuinely inspired, in fact."
We sat on the floor of Samantha's room. I was watching her stick a ludicrous number of cigarette papers together. She padded out the skunk with a generous amount of tobacco and rolled the biggest joint I've ever seen. I'm sure some shortarse somewhere could have used it as a walking stick.
I looked around the room. It was one of the plainest bedrooms I've ever seen. The furniture was the cheap, functional stuff that the landlord provided. I'm sure it had been bought second hand many years back and would never see another home other than a midden. Samantha had made very little effort to decorate or personalise her room. There was a simple, sensible bedcover, a small portable CD player and a couple of shelves of books, mostly on biochemistry, with a few science fiction novels mixed in. Apart from that, you'd hardly know anyone was living there. "You've had skunk before, then?"
She nodded without looking up, still concentrating on making her monster. "I used to grow it, some time ago."
"Wow. Didn't your parents mind?"
"It wasn't any of their business, really." She snorted. "Anyway, they're both dead now."
"Don't be. I'm long over it." She struck a match and lit the joint. After a few deep tokes she passed it over. The rich smell of dope filled the room, sharp, sweet and full of promise. I took a long draw and held it down as long as I could. The smoke was harsh going down and I started coughing uncontrollably. I hate wasting good smoke.
"Jesus! That's not tobacco in there, is it?"
Samantha took the joint back carefully. "No. Can't stand the stuff. I used to smoke it, but even when I did I couldn't mix it with dope. Makes me puke. This is a herbal mixture. I get it in health food shops."
The skunk was starting to work already. I felt a slow rush build up. I knew from experience I'd better slow down otherwise things would start getting weird much too quickly. "Fair enough. I guess no one ever got lung cancer from herbal smokes." This was happening much too fast. Words were already starting to feel like multi-layered entities, with hidden meanings within meanings within meanings. I felt like a character in a James Joyce novel.
After a few long puffs Samantha broke the silence. "I had cancer once."
"Shit." My words were echoing in my ears, to the beat of my pulse. "What happened?"
"It killed me." She put her head back slowly and laughed. It sounded phoney, but so did everything I was saying, so who knows. "Don't worry," she said, "I got over it."
I nodded, not wanting to show that I felt completely out of my depth. "Oh." I took the joint back and had a shallow draw and then sat there, looking at the glowing tip with suspicion. I think there was a long silence, but it might only have been a few seconds.
"Sorry," Samantha said, "I'm getting weird. I'll put some music on." She started fiddling with the CD player behind her. I stared at the wallpaper. Some music started up. If I'd thought that words had been complicated, they were childishly simple compared to the music. There seemed to be all sorts of hidden sounds within it, like locks, waiting for the right key. My brain was full of keys. I closed my eyes and laid back. Sound effects jumped from the background to foreground and played games with my thoughts. The lyrics refused to make sense. They sounded like they were Arabic, or something. My mind felt like it was a terrier being worried by rats.
"Shit. What is this?" I rolled over and opened one eye to look at Samantha. She grinned impishly.
"Hawkwind," she said. "'Quark, Strangeness and Charm.' The song's 'Hassan I Sahba'."
"I thought you didn't like Hawkwind."
"So did I. It seems to make a lot more sense now."
Samantha laughed. It sounded like discs of metal falling in a pool. "Yeah. I don't think you can really appreciate them fully unless you're stoned."
"Ah. That's what I've been doing wrong." I felt myself becoming sleepy and decided I needed to sit up before I started snoring. Samantha passed the joint over and I decided to risk another shot. "So why Dundee?" I asked.
"Dundee. Why did you come to Dundee? It's a real shit-heap. The town's like one big dead body and the students are all of us who couldn't get into real universities."
"Maybe. Good biochemistry department, though. One of the best in the country, if you can believe it."
I'd stopped feeling like I was in motion, but everything still seemed very unreal. I tried to remind myself that this was a feeling I liked, that I'd paid money for. "I'll take your word for it."
"It's all right for you, I guess," she said. "At least you're Scottish. When I came here I thought there'd be a pretty good mix, but most of the students are Scots. I feel like a foreigner."
"Don't worry. We don't all hate the Sassenachs. Some of you are all right, anyway." Was that a stupid thing to say? Would it sound like I was insulting her? I took a couple more lungfuls in the hope of getting past the stage where I'd worry about stuff like that. The smoke was getting easier. I figured it had seared my lungs into submission.
"Good. I'm tired of not fitting in."
"Eh?" My eyelids were feeling the pull of gravity and I put the joint down in the ceramic bowl we were using for an ashtray. I let gravity close my eyes and saw flashes of colour, trying to make shapes, like fragments from a cartoon. Maybe I fell asleep. Maybe my memory was just totally scrambled. I don't know, but that was all I remember from that night.
Neither of us thought to close the curtains that night and it was the first light of dawn that woke me up. Luckily it was an overcast day, and the sunlight is never that strong during a Scottish winter anyway. Still, it prodded my eyes like it was made of glass. Most people I know rank the lack of hangover as one of the main advantages of cannabis over alcohol, coming somewhere down the list after all the nifty sex stuff. I envy them. While my dope hangovers aren't the same skull-crunchers as a really evil alcohol one, they're not non-existent either. I was about to close my eyes again and wait it out when I noticed Samantha's sleeping head resting on my thigh.
Had something happened last night, while my memory was short-circuited by THC? I don't think I would have been able to take the irony if it had. We were both fully clothed, though, and apart from a spilled ashtray and our slumped bodies, the room looked pretty undisturbed. I guessed that we'd both behaved ourselves.
I tried to ease myself as upright as best I could, leaning my back against the bed, without waking Samantha. She looked so peaceful, asleep and calm. With her face relaxed she looked almost pretty. I felt a pang of something I didn't want to admit to.
She smiled in her sleep. Whatever she was dreaming about, it looked like it was tender and sweet. I hoped it involved me. I brushed her hair back from her forehead in a slow, gentle movement. Across her forehead, under the fringe of dark hair, there was a long, white scar. It didn't look like the kind of scar you'd get from going through a windscreen or falling down some stone stairs while drunk. It was clean and even. Surgical. Involuntarily, I traced it with my thumb. Samantha's eyelids flickered and she snapped awake.
"Alasdair?" She jerked her head back from my hand. "What are you doing here?"
"I must have crashed out here last night. Sorry."
Samantha pushed herself back onto the bed in a quick, fluid movement. Once there she hunched against the wall and crossed her arms. "That's all right. It's probably time for you to go, right?"
"Fine," I said. "Dinnae fash." I tried to grin. She didn't say anything else as I left.
Once back in my own room I lay on my bed and looked up at the mural. "Well, Cthulhu, what do you think? Women, eh? Who'd have them?"
Cthulhu didn't seem to have an opinion.
"Elaine, you're a woman."
We were sitting in the living room. Elaine was watching some mindless quiz show on the TV, shouting out answers to all the questions. Some of them were even right. I was trying to read a copy of The Beano I'd found lying around. I'd heard that it was supposed to have a cult following amongst students, and apparently one of them lived in this house, but its charm was escaping me. I think I found it funny as a child, but maybe I'd grown up more than I'd realised.
"Last time I checked. What's led you to this outstandingly perceptive observation?"
I dropped the comic behind the sofa. Maybe something that lived back there would like it more than I did. "I was just wondering if you could explain some stuff about how women think."
"Something to do with electrical impulses and synapses. Is this official stupid conversation day or something?"
"Yeah. Right." I settled back on the sofa and prepared to sulk.
"OK. I suppose I'm not going to get any peace. What do you want to know?"
"That's more like it." I shuffled round a bit so I could face her. She wasn't bad looking, in an average sort of way. If it hadn't have been for the Neanderthal boyfriend I might have tried chatting her up instead. "When a woman likes a man, in a, you know, lovey-dovey kind of way, does she hold back from showing it? Do women really play hard to get, and if they do, how the hell are men supposed to know?"
"Well, in my new role as spokesperson for all womankind, I'd have to say, 'Haven't a clue'. It depends on the man. It probably depends on the woman, too. I imagine circumstances have something to do with it as well."
"So, basically, you're telling me I've got to work it out for myself?"
"Something like that."
"Elaine, were you always this confusing and unhelpful, or is it a by-product of reading philosophy?"
She threw a cushion at me.
I took the last of my disposable income over to the Oasis that night. It seemed like the only sane option. My first lecture the following morning wasn't until eleven and I figured I stood a chance of making it, even if I misbehaved the night before.
It was a bit more crowded. There was no sign of any rugby players, but there was a gaggle of engineers around the bar itself. I decided to try to find what still passed for a dark corner and avoid the noise. Jamie would have to live without my wit and charm for the evening.
After getting a pint of cider, as dry as they stocked, I made my way to the section of the Oasis that was tucked around the corner from the main bar. It was still hideously over-lit, but not many people bothered with it. It even had a console for the jukebox, even if most of the stuff on it was indie shite or compilations of the kind of stuff you heard on Radio One during the daytime. It wasn't as if I had the money to waste on it, anyway.
Round the corner, I found Samantha, sitting at a table, by herself. She didn't notice me until I sat down opposite her, and when I did she just gave me a non-committal look. I looked back, but couldn't help myself from grinning. I felt like an idiot.
"Sorry," Samantha said eventually. "I was a bit rough on you this morning. I just didn't expect anyone to be there when I woke up. It freaked me a bit."
"That's OK. I guess we were both pretty out of it last night."
I started to stand up and put a hand in my pocket. "Can I get you a drink?" I asked, silently praying that the answer would be no.
"That's all right. I've got a bit of a head start on you. Can't hold my drink like I used to."
"Hmmm," I said, and nodded sympathetically. I picked up her glass and had a sniff. "Drambuie?"
"It does the job."
"Got a lot on your mind, then?"
"Uh-huh." She took a sip from the glass. She didn't look like she enjoyed it. "Women's trouble, I suppose. Don't worry about it."
"OK," I said, and didn't.
Over the next hour or two we both got progressively more drunk. I tried telling her about the music I liked, but she didn't seem too interested, and I became less convinced that I actually liked the stuff myself. She told me a bit about her work, and it turned out she had been right earlier: I hardly understood a word of it, and it did involve a lot of dead fruit flies. We drifted through politics, where we discovered that while we both tended to the left, neither of us really knew or cared much about it. Finally we turned to myself, on of my favourite subjects.
"Don't you ever worry about being a stereotype?" Samantha asked. Her eyes looked a bit red and bleary.
"What do you mean? What kind of stereotype?"
"Computer nerd," she said. "Let's face it, your skin looks only a bit less pale that it would if you were dead..."
"I'm Scottish," I interrupted. "It's genetic. Anyway, when was the last time you saw any daylight around here?"
"OK, but even taking that into account, we still have the glasses and the acne scars. Then there's the... Well, there's no way of putting it delicately. You're a bit of a fat bastard."
I nodded morosely. "I suppose I could do with losing a stone," I said.
"Well, two and a half, maybe. What's all this building up to, anyway? Are you trying to tell me I'm ugly?"
"Actually, given all those black marks, you do all right. I don't want to think what you'll look like once the bloom of youth has left you, though." She smiled wickedly. I think it was a smile I liked.
"If this is supposed to be flirting, I think you need a few more lessons."
Her smile disappeared. "No, that wasn't flirting." I don't think she sounded that sure about it. "I like you, but I'm not interested. Not in that kind of way."
I suppose if I'd been sober I would have left it there. I wasn't, though, and didn't. "Why? Are you a lesbian, or something?"
She looked startled. "What, just because I won't jump into bed with you, you assume I don't go for men at all. You've got a pretty high opinion of yourself."
"I thought it was a fair question. I'm not accusing you of anything. It's the new millennium, for God's sake. You think I couldn't cope with knowing you're a muff diver?"
"Sorry. I guess I'm getting defensive." She looked into her glass, glaring at the contents. Maybe she was suddenly regretting being drunk. "The truth is I don't know. I'm not sure what I am any more."
I waited for her to say something else. There were a lot of questions in my head, all wanting answers, but this didn't feel like the right time to ask any of them.
"Let's just say I'm confused at the moment and don't need any more complications. Maybe I'll change in time, but there's so much stuff I've got to work out first. I don't mean to fuck you around. I know it's not fair on you, but if it's any consolation it doesn't feel very fair on me, either."
I nodded sympathetically. It felt like the thing to do. All this caring and sharing stuff seemed a bit strange, but I was willing to play along. Maybe it would pay off. "If you ever need to talk about any of it, I'm just next door."
"Thanks." She smiled sadly and patted my hand. "You're a good friend."
We finished our drinks in silence.
The walk back to the house took us around the art college. The college itself was the same kind of bland concrete block that most of the buildings around the university were. The only good thing about it was that the area round the back was used as storage for sculptures. I don't know if they were successful ones that had been put on display or failures that had just been dumped there. Until we came to them, we had been walking in silence.
"I like this one," I said. We were standing in front of a piece that looked like a huge concrete cone, about eight feet high, with a mosaic path spiralling up it. "Any work of art you can play on is all right with me."
Samantha looked it over and nodded. "What do you suppose it means?"
"Well, it's obviously a representation of man's path to perfection. See what I mean." I grabbed her by the hand and started leading her up the walkway. "It feels like we're going round in circles, but at the same time we're also ascending." She giggled, but I tried to look stern. "As we approach the top the path gets smaller and more treacherous. Only the skilled can make it this far. Here, at the pinacle, the path runs out abruptly, leaving us just short of our goal. Stuck here we can only stare at the peak and," I took both her hands and swayed her gently, "try not to fall off."
Samantha screamed in a good-natured way and then collapsed into laughter. I struggled to stop us falling off for real and pulled her towards me. We ended up standing there, facing each other, pressed together. I kissed her. It seemed like the thing to do.
I was surprised. She reciprocated, after a moment of hesitation. Our lips mashed together joyously. I felt a weight lift from my heart and a bulge build in my trousers. I don't think I've ever been so happy.
Then she pulled back. She looked up at me with a startled expression. "This isn't happening," she said.
"I beg to differ." I smiled, hoping to lighten her mood. It just seemed to make things worse. She turned and edged down the spiral, jumping off as soon as it was safe. "Samantha!" I shouted, as she started running towards the house. "What's wrong?" I ran after her.
It was only fifty or so yards to the back garden. I tried to catch up, but I'm not much of a runner. Samantha must have worked to keep herself in better shape than me. She was at the back door by the time I made the start of the garden. The garden itself was a grass covered slope that led down steeply to the house. There must have been some rain while we'd been in the pub and I slipped as I hit the grass. I found myself tumbling down towards the back door. The alcohol must have made me nice and relaxed, because I just eased into the roll and let it take me downwards. By the time I reached the bottom I was covered in grass and mud, and Samantha was nowhere to be seen. I got up with as much dignity as I could manage and let myself into the house. At least she hadn't locked the back door behind her.
After staggering up the stairs to the top floor I tried Samantha's door. It was locked, of course. "Sorry," I shouted. "Whatever it was, I'm sorry." I tried slamming my fist into the door. "Samantha! Just talk to me! Please!"
I heard a door open downstairs. "Will you please shut the fuck up, Alasdair?" Elaine shouted. "Some of us are trying to sleep." A few sarcastic responses bounced around my mind, but the thought of her six foot four boyfriend stilled them. I clenched my fist until it hurt and waited. Eventually, I went back to my own room.
I didn't see any sign of Samantha for the next few days. I figured she'd try to avoid me and left her to it. Her room was quiet, but for all I knew she never even left it. During a particularly black moment I wondered if she'd decided to top herself. If she had, I supposed I'd smell something soon enough.
Even when, early the next week, I saw her going down Hawkhill, she was walking at a pace just short of a run. I could take a hint. I just wished I knew what exactly it was that I'd done.
Later that week, Jamie came up to my room. It was the first time he'd done so since we'd moved in, even though he was only one floor below. In fact, thinking about it, it was the first time anyone had visited. I was surprised, but vaguely grateful. I was getting pretty tired of my own company. I just wished that Jamie looked happier about being there. He shuffled around a bit and looked up at the picture on the ceiling. "Cute. Does he bite?"
"No, but he packs a mean cuddle."
Jamie looked down at his feet and scratched the back of his head. I sat back down on my bed and watched him, waiting. Eventually he asked, "Is she talking to you yet?"
"No. She'll come round in time. Until then I'll let her stew. Sooner or later she'll realise she misses me."
There was another silence. I waited again, but Jamie kept examining the carpet.
"You looking at the hole?"
"The hole in the carpet. Keith, you know, he had the room before me, came back after a heavy session one night and took a piss in the middle of the floor. That's where it rotted through the carpet."
"I hadn't noticed."
"What is it, then?"
Jamie finally made eye contact. "You know my brother's at Manchester? Medical student."
"I do now."
"So was your lady love, before she came here."
"And?" I knew I sounded anything but casual. Everything about the way Jamie was acting was beginning to freak me. Something bad was coming.
"She's famous, though you wouldn't know it. You probably heard about her on the news a year or two back." Jamie did his quiet and uncomfortable bit again. I clenched my teeth.
"Just tell me, Jamie. I can take it. It's the waiting that's pissing me off."
"OK. You remember all that stuff about the first brain transplant? The first time they'd got it to work with a person? The biggest medical breakthrough of our time? That was her."
"No, really. It's her. Alan, my brother, remembered her. Apparently they didn't give many details about her to the press, to give her some chance at a normal life."
"It was someone else. It must have been." I remembered the scar across her forehead. I knew then that if I had traced it I would have followed it right around her head.
"No. Alan was at the hospital at the time, working. He met her. We were chatting on the phone, and I mentioned our weird new lodger. He put it together. Someone had mentioned to him that she'd gone to Dundee, and when I described her he said it was definitely the same woman."
"Shit." It was my turn to hold the silence. "Shit," I said, finally. "Did he know her before? What was she like?"
Jamie half turned and put a hand on the doorknob. "I think you'd better talk to her," he said, and left.
I didn't know if Samantha was in her room or not. I decided it wouldn't be worth knocking, based on her recent behaviour. If she was there, she'd have to come out eventually, if only to pee. If she wasn't in, she'd probably come back to sleep. Either way, she'd be going through that door at some point. I sat down, cross-legged on the floor, my back to the door, and waited.
It was a long and uncomfortable wait. My legs went numb pretty quickly and then moved through various stages of pain. I'm not designed for sitting on hard floors. I stuck with my resolve, though. There might have been more practical ways to sort things out, but this was what felt right.
Eventually it paid off, but it was a weird ride getting there. I had entered a state of mind that was almost trance-like. The woodchip in the wallpaper was making faces at me. My whole body felt cold. Then, with only the slightest of noises to give warning, the door opened behind me and I fell backwards. I lay on the floor and looked up at a very surprised Samantha.
"Is now a good time to talk?" I asked.
"I know I've been avoiding you. Would it make things any better if I told you the problem wasn't you? I said I had things to sort out for myself, and what happened the other night made it all even harder. I'm sorry that it has to affect you too."
I had resolved to play things softly. There were a lot of questions, but if I'd just gone blazing in, the way Samantha had been, I doubt I would have had any of them answered. As it was, Samantha had started talking almost as soon as the door was shut behind us. I kept standing, while she sat on the bed, so I might have some kind of psychological advantage. I'm not sure if I was actually angry at that point, but it felt important to stay in control of the situation.
"It's all right. I knew it was something like that."
She smiled with relief. "Good. I'm glad you can see things like that. I didn't know what you'd think of me."
I leaned back against the door and watched her. I'm not sure what expression I wore, but it made the muscles in my face ache.
"I know we'll sort something out," she said. "I like you and we seem to get on all right. God knows I need a friend right now."
"So we are friends?"
"Uh, yes. Is there a problem with that?"
"No. Not at all. I was just thinking, if we're friends you can tell me all about what happened to you in Manchester."
I'd read descriptions in stories of people suddenly going pale, but it was one of these things I never believed really happened; Samantha did it though. It was like all the blood drained out of her in one go. Her whole body sagged.
"Shit. Who told you?"
"It doesn't matter. I just want to hear it from you now."
Her eyes moved from side to side, as if she was looking for a way out. "Do we have to? You seem to know enough already. It's not something I like thinking about more than I have to."
"You told me we were friends. Friends share stuff." My voice sounded dead in my ears.
"OK. You win." She brought her knees up in front of her chest. At any other time I might have found it endearing. "I was a guinea pig. The doctors knew I was dying. I'd had leukemia for years, most of the time with it in remission, but it came back again and all the chemo seemed to do was make me sicker. They even tried blood transfusions, but my white cell count was so low all they did was introduce new pathogens into my system that my immune system couldn't fight.
"Once I'd signed the consent forms it was a race to see if they could find a donor before I died. I'd got to the stage where I didn't really care one way or the other. At least death would have taken me out of all the sickness and pain. I didn't know if I'd even survive the journey into a new body, let alone whether I'd ever get the full use of it. I guess I was lucky." She held a hand out and rotated it, looking at it as if for the first time. A bitter smile appeared on her lips and then vanished.
"The run of luck started when a teenage girl called Samantha Reynolds decided to kill herself. Yeah, that's right: I took her name. It seemed appropriate, somehow. People only see what's on the outside. For most purposes I might as well be her.
"I never found out why she did it. I suppose I could have asked her family, but I was afraid to talk to them and I doubt they would have wanted to see me. She did the thing with a car, rubber hose and a sealed garage. Her parents found her before she died, but she was brain dead. They didn't know anything about the donor card she was carrying, but they didn't fight it either. I wonder what she would have made of what happened to her body after her death.
"The doctors kept her on life support in the hospital until they were ready to operate. Everything went even better than expected. I read up on all the details afterwards. I could bore you with them, if you want, but there's enough of them to keep us up all night." She lifted her fringe with one hand and traced her scar with the other. "Let's just say it was a miracle of modern medicine." Her eyes were moist with tears and her voice started to break up. "I'm just so fucking lucky."
I'm just a softy at heart. When Samantha had started speaking I was tense and, I suppose, working up to angry. Somehow I had felt betrayed and deceived, even though nothing she had told me before had actually been a lie. Now I was beginning to thaw inside. Seeing a woman cry brings out something primal and male in me.
"But you survived," I said. "I think if the same thing had happened to me I'd be happy, at least."
She glared up at me. "But it didn't happen to you. It happened to me. Most of the time I think I'm better off being alive than dead. I've never been tempted to do what she did. That's not what the problem is. How do you think you'd cope if you had to learn how to be someone else, someone so different from what you are? Every time I look in the mirror, I see her, not me. Every time someone talks to me, they're really talking to her. The real me, the me inside, feels like he's been buried alive."
I think I started to say something comforting. Samantha had been speaking so quickly and intensely that her words had been washing over me. The last bit didn't hit home for a few seconds until after she'd said it. "He?"
A look of honest terror crossed her face. "Oh God. You didn't know. You didn't know. Oh fuck, I'm sorry. I assumed..."
"He?" There's an emotion I've only felt a couple of times. It's a sense of absolute coldness inside. It's almost as if an off-switch has been thrown and nothing is connected any more. "We almost... I mean, we could have... And you're a man."
"You think I wanted this? This isn't what I would have chosen. Don't hate me, please. I kept telling you that we were just friends. We were only..."
The first punch was at her face. It all came so easily. Apart from fights in the playground as a child I'd never hit anyone for real. I don't know how hard I hit her, but she shut up. Then, somehow I was kneeling on the bed, over her, and hitting her all over. She didn't fight back, but just curled up. When I couldn't reach the soft parts of her torso I went back to her head and hit until my knuckles couldn't take it any more. When I was finished I stood up again and looked at her. She didn't move, but I don't think she was unconscious. Neither of us said anything. I let myself out and went back to my room to lie down.
I didn't notice Samantha move out. She must have done it that night, without telling me. No one in the house knew where she'd gone, or if they did they knew better than to tell me. It only seems fair.
It would have been good if things had worked out differently. When I calmed down later I knew what I had done was wrong. Regardless of what she was, or used to be, this had been someone I had liked and maybe even had deeper feelings for. It shouldn't have ended like that.
It was another year and a half until I graduated, and I don't think a day went past when I didn't think about Samantha. A couple of times I considered trying to track her down to see if I could put things right. Something tells me she would have been less than thrilled to see me.
Even now, I can't smoke dope without thinking about that night we spent together. That hasn't stopped me, but it always leaves me with a sense of sadness afterwards. I even bought a couple of Hawkwind albums to listen to when I smoke. Don't tell anyone, though.
Someday, maybe, we'll meet again. I hope so. It would be good to let the past die and stay dead. We all deserve a second chance, even if the ones some of us get are less spectacular than others. I'd like to think wherever Samantha is now, she's learned to live with who she's become. I think I could, as if that means anything now.
(c) 1998 XoYo
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