One of the scenes in the book — the one where Gabriel meets Jessica for the first time — original came out of this scene. This was back at a time when I was still deciding between a first or third person perspective, when I had no idea of the tone, and found myself rather enamoured with the voice of a raconteur telling the story of two young hearts with the amusement of a much wiser soul. The prose never pokes fun directly at Gabriel, nor indeed is it meant to, but hopefully allows the genuine earnest nature of the poor chap to come to the fore rather than painting him as a clumsy simpleton.
Of course, and I only noticed this after I wrote it, it’s very ‘Notting Hill’. So I went back, rewrote it into the gig scene at the uni bar, and transposed it into the first-person. I do rather still like the tone of the writing here, even if I do say so myself. Though I’m not sure if it wouldn’t become a little annoying in the long run. I’d rather fancied myself aiming for something akin to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves in the fantastic TV adaptation of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, but it’s all too easy to overstep the mark.
It took Gabriel Troy a whole seventeen seconds upon meeting Helen Leda to decide that she was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. There are many examples of love at first sight: those invisible and instantaneous arrows of Cupid struck hard at Boccaccio’s Troilo, they took their immediate toll on Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers in fair Verona. Homer Simpson fell in love with Marge Bouvier at first sight, as did Lancelot with Guinevere. Narcissus almost drowned because of it and The Beatles were certain that it happened all the time. Gabriel Troy did not, however, notice a flying cherubic archer; there were no celestial spotlights, angelic choruses or fabulous Scousers helping him to get by with a little help. He was wholly unprepared for such an event and therefore, not subscribing to the chiselled Herculean archetypes of Ovid and without a skilled Bard to write his lines for him, almost fucked it all up royally.
Admittedly the first second was taken up with bumping into her at moderate speed. The following fifteen seconds involved an embarrassing and frenzied attempt to mop poor Helen clean of the piping hot mocha she had been carrying, and gather up her books and papers, most of which had gone flying in the name of beverage defence. Unfortunately for Gabriel, in his apologetic flurry, he managed to further drown a textbook; ruin his victim’s rather fetching new cardigan (how was he supposed to know she’d only bought it two hours beforehand?); and inappropriately cup a boob or two, all the while spluttering staccato assertions of how terribly sorry he was and listing all of the expletives that he knew. The sight of this calamitous fellow desperately trying to mop up steaming coffee with the insides of his trouser pockets overrode Helen’s indignation and made her laugh, much to the surprise of her two friends who glowered at Gabriel with the velveteen disdain that is the reserve of the especially beautiful, and cats of course. It was therefore to both the sound of mirth and the heavy, piercing silence of female judgement that Gabriel rose off of the now sticky floor, wiping his hands hastily on any part of his clothing that was still dry, to make the acquaintance of his accidental quarry. Unfortunately for Gabriel, it was in that seventeenth second, as he looked into the face of Helen Dickinson for the first time with horror and regret resonant in his eyes, that she looked straight back and did something from which he’d never truly recover: she smiled.
Gabriel opened his mouth to answer her silent absolution with further apology – it never hurt to overstate one’s sorryness in these circumstances he found – but nothing came out. He tried again, but still to no avail. A third attempt proved slightly more fruitful: his vocal chords did a slight jig, but Gabriel suddenly found it very difficult to breathe at the same time and was incredibly aware of his heart rate which reverberated in his ears like a distant timpani, removing any thoughts he might have had on constructing actual words and thereby rendering human speech impossible.
‘Mmmssllffffnngg,’ said Gabriel, at which point both of the right eyebrows of Helen’s companions shot skywards with such perfect timing that they should really have been accompanied by a cartoon sound-effect. Gabriel panicked and shouted at himself internally.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.’ The gorgeous apparition in front of him had spoken to him. He could hear the amusement in her light voice and worst of all she’d said sorry first. She didn’t even have anything to be sorry for! Waves of shame would have swept over Gabriel instantaneously at that point if he hadn’t already reached the bottom of this particular pit of wretchedness. He felt his contrition boiling up from deep down in the pit of his stomach. It erupted like Vesuvius and poured out unannounced in a mindless torrent that engulfed Helen completely.
‘I’m so sorry. So terribly sorry. I didn’t see you at all. Please, if there’s absolutely anything I can do. I’ve completely ruined your top. Oh god and I accidentally touched your….Oh shit I didn’t mean to, I mean I was just trying to mop up the coffee that….I mean I would never.’ She looked questioningly at him in silence, a smile still dancing on her lips. Her friends’ surprise rapidly began to descend into contemptuous disbelief. Gabriel decided that if no-one else was going to talk he’d better continue; it was a decision he would beat himself up over later. ‘When I say never I don’t mean that….I mean I’m not gay and you’re obviously….you know…very attractive…but I’m not a pervert or anything. I respect women, I’m Mr. Respectful I am. I’m a watcher. Not in a sick way. I don’t go around you know watching people, but you know. Oh dear…’ he trailed off, fearing that if he continued to talk he might drown. He sort of wished he was drowning right now. Helen paused for a moment and appraised her assailant with a look of kind pity. Gabriel tried to smile back, but found that his facial muscles felt weird as if they’d rusted, and so only succeed in exhibiting something pitched halfway between an expression of friendliness and a look of constipated discomfort.
‘So Mr. Respectful wants to know if there’s anything he can do to make up for this does he?’
‘Oh God anything at all.’ Gabriel stuck to just the one sentence this time. Helen took a step towards him and whispered into his ear. She was so close that when Gabriel inhaled he could smell a light scent of flowers. She smelled of summer to him, underneath the overpowering whiff of coffee of course. It made him breathless again and he went stiff as a board, too nervous to move.
‘You could start by buying me another coffee later?’ She whispered into his ear. He could feel her breath on him and it made his skin tingle, not in the way it did when he found himself confronted by spiders or flying (god, he hated flying), but in the same way Gabriel imagined it might if he were to climb Everest or sing in front of fifty thousand people: alive, excited, mystified and obviously scared shitless.
‘Of course. Anything you want,’ he found himself whispering back immediately.
‘I’ll be in Junction from eight for the acoustic night.’ She stepped back and took her stack of soggy books, which Gabriel had been holding out tenderly like a sacrificial offering or a newborn child, and turned to walk away. Her two friends fell in either side of her, chirping away in disbelief at what just happened, leaving Gabriel standing for second rooted to the spot with his now empty arms still out in front of him as he drank in the last dizzy moments. There was a moment when the three young women turned back in unison – the supporting cast with arch glances of incredulity and the star with a ripple of that smile once more – and Gabriel gave a little wave, before noticing that the entire incident had attracted a crowd that he had not seen until then. With upwards of twenty pairs of eyes following him, he made for the exit before remembering exactly why he had been hurrying in the very first place and diving sharply into the toilets.