‘Happy Days’, Jerome Kemp

Artwork by Djibril

Only last night I was standing in front of the mirror admiring myself: a snub, yet bulbous nose; eyes in a permanent squint; a dribbly, brown-toothed grin; thirty-six years old with nothing on top but a few lank, mud-coloured strands. And I hadn't come by any of these attributes through abuse, self or other: I was just born that way. Believe it or not, a few years ago my appearance depressed me a bit. But not any more: life's too short (as they used to say).

So, being in a pretty good mood, I splashed on some Joop, relishing the sting it gave my acne, and off I went to the pub. I wasn't planning on meeting anyone in the pub. I thought I'd just try my luck. Although a few years ago I'd been a write-off as far as success with the opposite sex was concerned, things had definitely changed: oh yes, things had changed alright.

 [ The Hindenberg: image (cc) 2006 Djibril ] The Hindenburg wasn't really a pub as such: just a place that specialised in selling Belgian lagers. Its interior was minimalist and metallic, and gave a peculiar impression of hollowness even when you couldn't move for people. But it was handy, at the end of my road, and stayed open late. I suppose in a sense you'd have had to describe the music they played as depressing: that's to say it wasn't in any way up-tempo. It was dirgey, a little meditative: the bass lines and drum beats playing a hypnotic, rather than a deafening role.

Looking about I took in the same old gatherings of good-looking people, and as usual they seemed pretty anxious. Or were they good-looking? Well, most of them were; or if not good, then at least nice-looking: you somehow had the impression that until recently, until it all began to change, they'd been trauma-free, happy, or at least not really depressed: that much was obvious. And, by contrast, there were one or two frankly nerdy, or even ugly-looking people, and people you'd have otherwise regarded as fucked-up, looking curiously smug.

I ordered a pint of Stella and decided that, in spite of my happiness, I'd get pretty drunk tonight anyway. It didn't take long before I spotted a woman who seemed to fit the bill. She was pretty—a petite blonde—and, not surprisingly, looked ill at ease. I watched her for a moment or two; it was the rabbity, nervous smile that did it: a smile that seemed to be aimed at me.

She was standing there with these two other women, pretty too, but apparently attached to a couple of Handsome Bastards—poor sods. So anyway, I strolled over to the blonde. I suppose you could say I'd got that thing they call confidence. I said:

"Hello, I'm Victor," and gave her a good view of my pretty repulsive teeth.

She responded with another twitchy smile, and just about managed to tell me her name was Petra. We pulled up a couple of stools at the bar. Like I guessed, the Handsome Bastards didn't mind, not just because they were with these other two (if indeed they were): they were just a bit pathetic. You could tell that a few years ago these were the sorts of tossers who'd have been grinning their heads off, leering loudly over the women, all exuberant self-confidence. And, of course, the women would have been loving every minute of it.

I guessed that that would have included the woman I was trying it on with right now. Yes, things had changed alright. She almost seemed a bit desperate, poor thing. It had affected everyone in different ways, but there was no doubt that it was the formerly successful, beautiful, and happy (funny how these things often used to go together) who'd been hit the hardest: they had so much more to lose. And yet Petra, as I now found out, still worked as a media lawyer, still went in there, did her thing—even though it was all so pointless. But then again, as the government kept saying, you had to carry on, didn't you?

After telling me about her job Petra came over all dejected and said:

"I hate this place. I don't know why I come here anymore. I used to really love it. On Friday nights, it was great. But now…"

"Yeah," I said, understanding, and to an extent agreeing. I mean, it certainly was an awful place, but everything was awful anyway, and to me that had somehow become a source of comfort. "I know what you mean."

"But you don't seem that bothered. You don't seem… you're different. My other friends," she gestured over to the group she'd come in with, "they're so down about it all, you know. Well, so am I, we all are. But then there are people, well, people like you I guess, who seem to see it differently, who almost seem okay about it. It's silly, but even so, it's still nice to be around someone like that. I mean, we might as well, mightn't we?"

"What?"

"We might as well be around happy people, enjoying ourselves, you know."

"Yes, absolutely. That's all we can do."

But I knew that she just couldn't. I knew that this pandemic trauma was too much for her. Too much for me too, no doubt, but then for me it was just the latest in a long line.

"Tell you the truth," I said, now genuinely warming to her—I couldn't help it, I was still a human being; "not that long ago I wasn't a bundle of laughs myself."

"What? Before Scarmon, you mean?"

"Yes."

She looked baffled. But I didn't want to get into that now; I didn't want to put her off. In spite of everything, women were still women: you still had to watch what you said. So we talked a bit more about what we did, as if it mattered. We seemed to keep up this pretence, and I could see that she was almost managing to convince herself that what she did and who she was, her incarnation on this planet, was all to some purpose. I think I may have detracted from this, brought her back down to earth, when I told her what I did: that I composed dirges (a recent 'musical' phenomenon), and was beginning to have some slight success, in spite of the economy being an absurdity.

I was getting the Stella down at a pretty steady rate, but I noticed that Petra was now starting to really knock it back. Yes, it was that talk of dirge music, must have brought it all home to her—she couldn't get away from it, none of us could. On the other hand, maybe she was only thinking an hour or two ahead, and dealing with that other difficult reality of what I looked like.

Anyway, it certainly seemed that the drink was getting to her because having only a moment ago feigned bafflement, she now wanted to investigate my happiness a bit further.

"I've met a few people like you recently—over the past few months," she said; "it's the Scarmon thing, isn't it? It's as if you guys—and girls too, some of them, but it's the guys you notice more—it's as if you've come out of the woodwork or something."

"We were always there," I said. I thought about it for a second, taking a good swig, and then went ahead: "the reason you don't notice the girls so much, I mean the girl equivalent to blokes like me, is to do with sex. A generalisation I know, but for men like me, when it all turned around we sort of became more attractive." I paused here, but Petra seemed alright with it, she let it pass. "It seems that men can, in certain extreme circumstances, be attractive to women, even if they look like me. But it's less likely to happen the other way round—for girls I mean, because men judge so much on looks, I suppose; though, then again, men have never been very fussy. But the real thing is women seem to think happiness is a good thing. An attractive quality. And I suppose these days happiness is a bit of a prized possession."

"I'm not sure if it's quite like that," Petra said. "Women have always found personality important-"

"Oh please. So a few years ago you'd be standing here talking to a bloke like me?"

"Maybe, if you were approachable."

"That's bollocks, and you know it. Christ, why still keep up the pretence? Fact is, looks are really just as important to women, always were, but for some reason most of the men—the once normal type—are just so depressed, it's too much for you. Nowadays you just can't be that fussy."

By the look on Petra's face I could tell that inside that cute little mouth her teeth were clamped tight in annoyance. I waited, but all she could say was:

"You're pushing your luck, you know."

So I back-pedalled a bit and said: "I know, sorry. I suppose there's still this residue of bitterness from how I was in the old days. I often talk bollocks." Then I raised my glass and gave it a regretful look as if to shift some of the responsibility.

"Anyway," I said, trying to smooth things over: "you're not talking to me now because of what I look like, are you?"

She shrugged her shoulders, sighed and said: "I don't know."

"Well, neither do I really. All I do know is that a few years ago things started to improve—well, for the likes of me anyway."

"A few years ago?" She said, taking a sip of wine and looking at me with a sort of drunken, deliberate intent.

"Yes," I said: "when the population problem began to get out of control. It was then that the cheerfulness started to creep in."

Petra raised her eyebrows at that, but I could see she was getting the gist.

The population problem had been brewing for some time. There were just too many fucking people about. The government had been at a loss, but a few years ago one of the things they did, which had to cheer you up, was actively re-introduce smoking (something of a U-turn, to say the least): it became practically illegal for over seventy-fives to be seen without one on the go. A drop in the ocean, of course, but something had to be done to appease the public. And it was at about this time too that problems concerning the environment really kicked off. Documents were leaked about the likelihood of a twenty year duration for London, at the outside; thirty five per cent of the British Isles would be under water within forty years. A few people just dismissed it all as bollocks, but quite a few more became anxious about the future—particularly those who until then thought they had futures. Depression and the suicide rate began to soar (alas, too little too late as far as the population crisis was concerned). Self-help book sales rose, initially, and then plummeted.

But something quite unexpected also began to take place: curious outbreaks of happiness. These almost entirely occurred among those whom hitherto would have been regarded as clinically depressed. Psychologists weren't that surprised. The fact that now everything was officially awful, really awful, pointless, somehow seemed to make these miserable bastards, like me, happy.

 [ Scarmon: image (cc) 2006 Djibril ] And then came the icing on the cake: seven months ago an unfortunate astronomer called Frederick Scarmon discovered that the Earth was fifteen months away from an inevitable impact by a meteor. A few of the old stalwarts still rubbished it all, called it 'Scarmongering', but as time went on the sense of doom's inexorable approach became more and more established. You just knew that that was just the way it was.

"Put in a nutshell," I said to Petra, "all this depressing stuff actually seems to have cheered people like me up. I mean, if it wasn't for all this I would have probably killed myself by now. It's almost as if it's given us a chance, though there aren't many of us about, of course. Do you see what I'm getting at?"

Petra looked at me, glassy-eyed. I thought I'd blown it. She knew what the situation was, what I was, what she was and why we were the way we were. I suppose having it spelled out can sometimes be a bit much. But then she smiled, shaking her head, and said:

"That's not all, either."

"No?"

"Look at them." She raised her glass over in the direction of the blokes who'd accompanied her earlier, and then at some others. They looked a bit out of sorts, sure, but I didn't see what her point was.

"Most of them are impotent," she said.

"Oh," and I just nodded knowingly. It was a thought I'd entertained myself: another reason, perhaps the reason, why she was talking to me at all. And it made sense: I mean, if they were really as depressed as they looked.

"They say they're up for it," she said, "with all their desperate 'bravado'; they say 'it's now or never!'—well they would, wouldn't they—but they've lost it. Just lost it."

"Oh well," I sighed, sarcastically, "what can you do?" And I thought about my own difficulties in this department, but obviously kept that to myself.

"So…" She stood up from her stool and swayed a bit. She grabbed the bar to steady herself. "Now what?"

"Good question." And although I chuckled I didn't feel too good for some reason. I didn't feel that good all round. I felt I was pissed to about the right degree, and given how things had gone over the past couple of years, particularly the last few months, I should have been feeling pretty sure of myself: I'd been enjoying my new-found success. I'd capitalised, it'd been my turn at last. But what she'd just said seemed to hit a nerve. Maybe I wasn't so different from those other bastards now myself. I'd had one or two moments of doubt like this over the past month…. No, come on: I just had to pull myself together: it's analysing things too much, that's what causes the grief—like it always had.

"Well," I said, "my flat's not far away, just round the corner: Blackstock Road."

"Is it?"

"Yeah."

And then I watched her sling back the rest of her white wine, drag her coat on, and give me a pretty unnecessary wink. I helped her out, telling myself to stop being pathetic: I was doing both of us a favour, wasn't I? When we got back, I poured a couple of huge glasses of red and we sat down on the sofa. I knocked mine back and it made me wince. Then I poured myself another and took a couple of hefty slugs. After that I got up, put on some Rod Stewart, sat back down on the sofa and drank the rest down in one. I was about to ask Petra whether she was going to drink hers but then it all suddenly clicked into place: I was ready. I leant over and kissed her on the mouth. She didn't mind. She wasn't very responsive but on that score I didn't mind either. I kissed her deliciously svelte and milky neck, and then went on down to those rather incidental tits.

"Mm," she said, compliantly, as I slid my fingers under her knickers. But I didn't really believe her. I carried on all the same, and then it suddenly came over me again: I just wasn't quite in on the idea. In spite of her condition she seemed to pick up on this, and at last made some sort of an attempt herself. You could tell she wasn't used to having to make an effort, but it did the trick.


So now I'm sitting in the bath, 9.30 am, thinking: enough. Petra didn't hang about: she left before I got up. I haven't had a hangover as bad as this for quite a while, not since the old days, before things started looking up. It's one of those hangovers that really puts it to you. Though really I always knew this day was around the corner.

It's no use, of course, it was never any use; it was all denial, pretence, a sick joke. I'm all used up. I've had it. The trouble is I've had too much now—success I mean. It gets to you after a while; it was getting to me last night, creeping in, just like the cheerfulness had. It's the success that makes you believe that maybe things matter. Maybe there is a point, or there should be. And of course, as Petra knows, as we all know, there isn't. Anyway, at least I had my moment.

Aahh…. that looks better: the blood dispersing calmly in the water. Justice slowly shrouding the crime: me.

The good old Swiss Army knife: why did I keep the blade so religiously sharp? The scissors always used to come in handy for trimming my toenails and nasal hair.


© 2006, Jerome Kemp

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