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by robt 

Posted: 12 January 2006
Word Count: 1854
Summary: First chapter of my as-yet-untitled debut novel (some mild swearing)

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Sunday 7 December 2003, 11.30am
12 Hatfield Road, Clapham, London

Someone, it appeared, was playing the theme from “The Great Escape”, loudly, in a different room, on what sounded like some sort of electric kazoo. It was extremely irritating, and it had woken Mark Skinner up. It was morning or, at least, it was light outside; it could have been three in the afternoon for all he knew which, in this state, was not much. He lay on his side and stared blankly from the bed at the white painted wall. It was not his wall and it was not his bed. But it was his phone which was still ringing.

“Is that your mobile?” asked a voice. Wherever Mark was, he was not alone. He rolled over to face the voice's source, a blonde woman of about his age.

“I think so.” The phone stopped.

“Are you going to see who it was?”

“They'll call back.”

Mark was rapidly coming to despite his sudden awakening and, he had just noticed, a headache of biblical proportions. He started to sense that he was up against it here - he felt none too good at all, was in a strange woman's bed and was missing phone calls. He was trying, between head throbs, to make sense of the situation, but was failing miserably.

“I had a great time last night,” said the woman. Mark was glad she had. If she had then he probably had, although he could not remember it and felt, at this moment, that he never would. He began to realise why he was coming round so quickly: he was freezing cold. There were no bedclothes and he was naked.

“Haven't you got any heating? It is December.”

“Ian's too lazy to call the landlord about it, keeps saying he'll fix the boiler himself one weekend. I don't know how, he couldn't fix a drink. Most of the time it's alright, actually, but some mornings it just doesn't seem to come on...” As the woman continued to talk, Mark let his thoughts roam freely around his pounding head to see if they could find any recollection of an Ian, but they could not. Through heavy eyes, Mark could now make out that his companion was also naked. He waited patiently
until he could get a word in.

“Aren't you cold like that?” he asked casually when at last the opportunity arose.

“You can warm me up if you like.” She moved towards him and an icy foot touched his leg.

“Jesus!” yelped Mark as he jumped out of bed. He hopped around the room rubbing his icy thigh. “Where are my clothes?” he shouted.

“Probably in the bathroom where you left them. Bring mine back if you're going, will you?”

Mark wandered out of the room into a dark and narrow hallway, in which he felt even colder. To his right was the front door, the fanlight above it giving scant relief from the gloom as the pale sunlight was weakened by the heavy frosting of the glass. There were three more doors, all white, wooden and closed: one in front of him, one directly to the left and one to the left and behind, the room next door to the one he had just left. He tried that one first but it was not the bathroom, just another bedroom, smaller than the other one with a tatty bed in one corner. At least it's got a duvet, thought Mark. He was convinced he had never been in this house or flat or whatever it was before; he did not feel totally sure he was here now.

Above the bed was a shelf loaded with books and music. Mark took a CD down from the shelf.

NIRVANA, 'Nevermind': Cool title, great cover, the baby swimming for the dollar bill, all those tunes, '...Teen Spirit', 'Lithium', and of course 'Come As You Are': “...and I swear that I don't have a gun”; bloody liar. Great album, commercial giant; in other words the album that killed Kurt.

Mark was tempted to browse some more, until he remembered why he was there: he was still very cold and still very naked. He moved out into the hallway again and tried the door in front of him.

“Nice outfit, dude.” This was not the bathroom either, but rather a good-sized kitchen-cum-living room. At one end a table all but filled the kitchen area, and at it sat a skinny man in his early twenties, sporting a tatty dressing-down and rather unfortunate goatee. When Mark entered he looked up from what he had been doing, eating dry cereal from a goldfish bowl. “You're naked, man,” he went on, “and it's putting me off my Cheerios.”

“Yeah, sorry,” said Mark, looking down at his unclothed self. “I thought this was the bathroom. You're Ian, right?”

“This is not the time for introductions, man. You do have some clothes, don't you?” Mark badly wanted to leave the room now, not through self-consciousness at his nudity but to escape from this annoying little man. He was not going to let him have the last word though.

“You're pretty rude, you know?”

“Excuse me, but you can't, like, barge in here and start on me, guy. This is my flat.”

Mark made to leave the room. “By the way, Ian, I couldn't find the bathroom last night either, and I was desperate after drinking all night, so I, you know…” Mark pointed at Ian's bowl. “Sorry. Dude.”

Ian stopped crunching and looked down.

“I washed it out, though. But probably not too thoroughly actually, I was a bit pissed. And I couldn't get any hot water…must be something wrong with your boiler.”

Ian let his spoon fall noisily into the bowl and Mark smiled as he shut the door behind him.

In the bathroom at last, Mark quickly discovered the clothes and suddenly remembered at least one detail from the night before. It was obvious from the attire of choice - shorts, blazer, tie and cap for him, short pleated skirt and small white blouse for her - that they had been to the School Disco. Yes, he recalled getting off the Tube at Hammersmith now. What was wrong with him? Would he never grow up? Had he not sworn not to go there again after last time? Yet, more importantly than all these questions, how was he meant to get home, in winter, in daylight, dressed as Dennis the Menace?

By the time Mark arrived back in the bedroom, the woman had got out of bed and, still naked, was gazing into a small mirror above the dressing table, brushing her hair. He could see more clearly how he might have manoeuvred himself into this situation now; she was just his type. He watched silently in the doorway for a while, admiring her pleasing figure and feeling rather satisfied with himself. Yet, unfortunately, this feeling was vying for his attention with many other, stronger ones, such as cold, hunger and the realisation that he was still no nearer remembering who this girl was or where he had ended up. A decidedly unpleasant thought hit home and a small but bracing shot of adrenaline passed through him - maybe he was just going to have to come clean. As Mark pondered this unhappy scenario, the phone rang again. He dropped the pile of clothes and fumbled through his blazer pocket. It was Dan.

“Hello bruv,” opened Mark cheerily.

“Where are you? You were meeting me at 11, remember?” Mark looked at his watch - it was twenty to 12.

“I'll come over.”

“Where are you?”

Mark lowered his voice. “I don't know.” He looked jerkily around the room, unsure even as he did so as to why this would help him answer Dan's question. “Look, give me twenty minutes and I'll be there.” He snapped the phone shut forcefully and took a very deep breath. He had done this sort of thing before and it had not gone well.

“You know,” he began airily, turning to the girl who was now rummaging through a chest of drawers in her underwear, “I'm afraid I have no idea who you are or where I am.”

The rummaging stopped abruptly and the girl stood upright. “Really?” she said calmly. She turned round slowly and started to walk towards him. “Well,” she continued levelly, “my name is Portia, as in Shakespeare, not the car, and you're in my flat in Clapham.”

And that was it; just the facts - no screaming, crying or brouhaha of any kind. Mark was just allowing himself to think that all this was going much better than expected when he was struck squarely and powerfully in the side with the business end of Portia's hairbrush.

“You bastard!” she yelled. Mark looked down at his body, rubbing furiously at the spot where the brush had connected with his bare skin. She really had hit him spectacularly hard and he just knew that, if he did not move, there would be more where that came from. He backed out of the room, feebly attempting to fend off her continuing attack. “I didn't expect marriage but you could at least have had the decency to remember my name! Or pretend you did!”

With hindsight, Mark was beginning to regret his course of action. It was true that he had slept with many women and it was equally true that he had royally cheesed quite a few of them off, but he could not remember ever having to defend himself against a prolonged and frenzied assault on his unclothed person, by hairbrush or otherwise.

“Go on, sod off out of it!” In his desperation to avoid further stinging blows, Mark had been forced into the hallway; in order to complete his escape he had been left with no option but to flee by way of the front door. Suddenly the thought of travelling across London in his school uniform did not seem so unappealing, faced as he was with the starkly horrifying alternative of sitting on the Underground in his birthday suit.

“At least let me get some clothes!” he pleaded.

“Piss off!” cried Portia, and slammed the door violently in front of him.

Mark raised his hand to knock at the door but, for the first time that morning, made the right decision and resigned himself to his situation. It was raining lightly, and as he slowly began to get wet he was unable to find much consolation in the fact that his clothes were still nice and dry, sitting as they were in a crumpled heap on Portia's bedroom floor. He looked up and down the rather anonymous row of Victorian houses and sighed. Mark had never been one for taking stock of his life, he had always been pretty happy to wing it. And yet it occurred to him, at that moment, 29 years old and standing naked on a South London side street, on a cold and wet Sunday morning in December, that perhaps it was time for a rethink.

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