Robin – everyone else called her Rob because her second name was Berry and they liked how it sounded, especially when she took up with a guy called Nick King – looked me in the eye and with no sense of irony, said, ‘Be careful, I’m just emerging from my second-longest relationship.’
There’d been a time before when I’d said something she didn’t like and she’d clattered me round the head with an ashtray, so I’d got into the habit of not reacting when she said something, even if the something she said was bizarre or outrageous.
Keeping a straight face, I said, ‘That’d be the second longest after Nick?’
‘Fourteen months. I was with Nick for three and a half years. This guy, though, towards the end he was staying out all night long. It was humiliating.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I was gonna stick his mobile down his throat. Got it into his mouth, but he was too strong for me. Smashed one of his teeth and cut his gum, though. And even after he broke my nose I still bit him in the thigh, hung on in there until I tasted blood. I would’ve killed him if I could.’
I held the eye contact, pursed my lips and shook my head. Anyone could see where my sympathies were. ‘He broke your nose?’
‘Cartilage, not the bone. I was in A&I but it was worth it. All for some scrubber he met in the gym. Fucking drum-stick legs, no arse to speak of, and I’m sitting home smoking all night while he’s spooning it out to her.’
I’ve known Robin for fifteen, maybe twenty years, though ‘known’ is probably exaggeration. We’ve been acquainted for a long time. We were on opposite edges of the same scene shortly after I arrived in York, part of the fallout that followed the Thatcher revolution and the disintegration of the trade-union movement. For a brief moment of time it looked as though we were on the same side, and neither of us have taken the time to formally dissolve the relationship in the intervening years.
When I think over the times we have met up, Robin has been either drunk or in love. Once she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and another time she was sitting on a kerb weeping, never said a word.
She had a daughter, Ellie, who is around fifteen, sixteen years old now. A hollow-eyed child, Ellie has grown into a teenager with a loud voice and hair in different coloured braids. She lives in a squat, a house that belongs to the church and believes that Jesus wants a legal transfer of ownership to take place.
Robin never asks me anything about myself. Our relationship consists of me asking concerned questions about her and she giving me sketchy information. The story is one of Robin, the vulnerable individual, battling the overwhelming power of destiny and the world and losing, but only marginally, always finding enough second wind to come back for one last try. My role, that of story-teller and sympathetic liberal onlooker, is only marginal.
‘I’ve gotta go,’ she said. She walked out to the street and I watched her walk out of the frame of the window.
A second later she walked back, opened the door and stuck her head into the café. ‘You know what?’ she said. ‘You’re fucking weird.’