The Jury Room  (Week 10)                                                                                                                                          Posted 15th July 2014

Body-surfing and solitaire for two or...                                 From The Herald : Sat 23-May-1998

            Will you love me forever tonight?          


Sunbed the Sailor, who sees a girl in every port, is standing at the bar, staring into the glass of Cockburn's in his hand. They bring a bottle of it through from the bar in the restaurant, if necessary, any time he comes in. The Jury Room is like that, careless about having anything as exotic as port or lemon slices but obliging enough to send a runner to the restaurant for them on request.

The brandy glass in which they serve him (Come on, it's not Optrex I'm drinking) hangs with the stem between his middle fingers. The deep red of the port tremors there, catching small blades of light like icicles that melt instantly. The effect is mesmeric, as is the unnaturally dark sheen of Sunbed's hair, the source of which is said by many in the Jury Room to be Cherry Blossom.

Apart from his colouring, he looks like a cut-price Rutger Hauer - hair combed straight back from a big-boned, worn face. The long, expensive raincoat is open to reveal a suit that might be by Armani out of Ralph Slater. There are three buttons undone on his shirt, showing a tan all the way down in his cleavage. He is unusually thoughtful.

Can you believe it? he says to me.

I can and I do. I know what he is referring to, something which happened a few minutes ago.

I had been sitting at the table with the Post Romantics, as I sometimes do - Tequila Sunset, Karma Chameleon and Mary Contrary. These are three interestingly different women, presumably connected partly by the accidents of circumstance and partly by the shared experience of being a woman in these shifting times.

They began coming to the Jury Room together before the Singles Nights and then took to dropping in from time to time for no other reason than to be there. Sometimes they appear to be just passing through, limbering up en route to more exciting places, like Cottyer's or Victoria's.

At such times, Tequila Sunset tends to have a preoccupied fierceness of expression, rather like a wolverine wondering where its next meal will come from (in her case, too, probably involving flesh). Karma Chameleon always seems less sure of what she's after. She's a divorced mother of three who doesn't seem too clear about what her role is these days, like an actress suddenly written out of a soap opera she had vaguely thought would give her a part for life.

Mary Contrary is mysterious in her self-containment.

They have been allowing me a marginal voice in the chat at their table. The general theme has been the difficulty of coming across a man of emotional substance these days when Sunbed the Sailor comes towards us - rather like a visual aid, I'm thinking. (Though, perhaps, from their point of view, they have one at the table already.)

I know that he has long fancied Mary Contrary and he has used his acquaintance with me to book a place at the table, having been watching us from the bar for some time. Even as I am hoping that, for his sake, he doesn't try one of his chat-up ploys in the present company (a bit like offering a fur coat as a present to an animal rights campaigner), he does.

It is a tactic I've seen him use several times. What he does, he focuses on the woman of his choice and begins to say something to her. In the middle of a sentence he tails off. He seems to have lost the thread of what he is trying to say. Something has distracted him. There is an awkward pause, during which he appears to be trying to reassemble his thoughts.

Then he says, Sorry - I've just noticed you've got the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen.

He's good at it. He should be, he's been practising long enough. (I already know several women who have the most beautiful eyes Sunbed has ever seen.) Amazingly enough, in my experience it works more often that it fails. The woman usually begins by brushing aside the remark and then, on his insistence, tends to let her denial be toned down, as if somewhere inside herself she has to admit that maybe he has a point. How many of us genuinely hate being complimented?

But this is Mary Contrary he's trying it on with. She's not an unkind woman but she has a disconcertingly steady gaze in which phoney gestures tend to shrivel. She gives Sunbed the look now, along with that small, wincing smile she has, as if the last remark she heard has caused a pain in some unidentified part of her.

I notice a brief, coded glance passing among the women and sense a number about to be done on Sunbed the Sailor. Mary being Mary, she goes not for the jugular but for an even more vulnerable part of the anatomy.

Anyway, as I was saying, Mary says. (This is a dead give-away. For Mary hasn't been saying anything for some time before Sunbed's arrival.) Maybe when we get past the male member as fetish, we'll be getting somewhere.

Sunbed's eyes dilate slightly as if trying to refocus. It is a reasonably arresting remark. It certainly has the edge on the weather or the price of fish as a topic of conversation. In the momentary silence, Karma Chameleon takes up her cue.

I know what you mean, she says. (Good for her.) And the conditioning starts young. Though I'm hoping my two girls have managed to escape it. I remember changing David's nappy once. The girls are watching. Anna would be three, Sophie six. What's that? Anna says, pointing at his penis. Sophie's recently seen a friend's baby just after she came out the hospital, with the umbilical still projecting. Oh that, Sophie says. It's all right - it falls off after 10 days or something.

At which point, no doubt (Mary Contrary says), David refilled his nappy and said his first word: No-o-o-o!

But maybe David hasn't escaped the dreaded male conditioning, Karma says - warming to her task as a member of the anti-member brigade. Another time. David would be about four by this time. He wanders into the bathroom when his dad's taking a bath. And I hear him saying, You've got a completely huge one, Daddy. I hear Andrew laughing and he shouts, Say that again, son. I don't think your mum heard you. I did - I shouts back - and that boy gets his eyes tested tomorrow.

I think it's called 40-40 vision, Mary Contrary says.

Maybe Andrew was playing with the loofah again, Tequila Sunset says.

And so on. Soon Sunbed has moved back to the bar and some time later I've joined him.

Can you believe it? Sunbed says again.

I don't say anything.

What about them for women? he says. Be like getting into bed with a buzz saw. What happened to romantic women?

I shrug ambiguously. My silence doesn't express indifference. It expresses an inability to voice the confusion of what I am thinking as I contemplate Sunbed.

Standing there, he reminds me of a poem by Thom Gunn I read a long time ago in a magazine. I have since seen the poem a few times in anthologies and the title had been changed to something I can't remember. In that original incarnation it was called Rastignac At Forty. It takes that wonderful creation, Rastignac, the hero of Balzac's Pere Goriot and one of my favourite depictions of male youth in literature (along with Eugene Sorel and Raskolnikov) and transplants him to a modern bar as an older man. He is brooding bitterly on the decline of his attractiveness to women. The resonance of the last line has never left me: So mean, so few the chances come.

Times change. Sunbed is well over 40 and still a runner in promiscuity's circular race. He has his own business, which seems to be doing well, and he carries everywhere with him a phone like a mobile hen party (a confined space full of women's voices). But, though the sell-by date for Don Juans may have been extended in our time, one aspect of the condition hasn't changed: the self-contradictory expectation of getting more from the sexual exchange than you give to it.

It is as if Sunbed still hopes to find something he has stopped searching for. Otherwise, why should he be dismayed when the women match his cynicism with theirs? If you spend your life body-surfing, you shouldn't expect to come ashore at some idyllic place. You should accept that you will just run aground again in the same old anonymous sand from which you set out.

This is not a heavy moral judgment, merely an existential one. In a book called In Praise of Older Women Stephen Vizinczey reverses Freud's theory that it is our sexual experience which determines our character. He suggests that our character determines our sexual experience and that in the act of sex we reveal our most essential nature. From there, it seems to me, it's not too big a step to thinking that perhaps the essential nature of any society is most clearly revealed in its attitudes to sex.

If this is true, Sunbed is a fairly representative product of our times. He seems to have bought into the contemporary belief that even people are essentially consumer commodity and sex just some kind of ego aerobics. That may seem fair enough as far as it goes. The question is: how far does it go? Not very far, I would think. To take what is potentially one of our deepest experiences and reduce it to a function is surely to short-change ourselves experientially. It is like living without ever wanting to know who you are. For it is in that dangerous exchange of selves along with bodies that we meet ourselves most honestly.

Still, it's possible that Sunbed's core of disappointment with the women is a small sign of hope, an indication that he needs more. It's not a feeling restricted to the men. Mary Contrary tells me that Tequila Sunset, self-confessed hunter in a way that used to be regarded as a male prerogative, has been known, on the morning after many nights before, to leave a love note on the bedside table. Maybe that, too, is a plea to meet with someone for longer than it takes the sweat to cool.

Maybe, among those today who seem to see sex as a game for two, there are many who, even in the act of sexual gymnastics, still look for the moment that will contradict their own self-absorption.

Maybe, among the casual couplings, more naive yearnings still surface slowly, like a love note on a bedside table.

Message in a bottle.