8. The Grasshopper of Innocence

I SHOULD BEGIN BY saying that when I arrived in this city I knew no one. You could even say I knew nothing. Of course I knew some things, possibly many things, but I knew far less than I thought I knew, for one thing, and I knew nothing about what I ought to know. I knew nothing about women, for one thing, but then I also knew nothing about men. I knew everything there was to know about horses, football and music, within reason of course, but of these two subjects, women and men - not a thing. This was almost 30 years ago now. You asked how I came to know Carine, so I’m telling you. I came to the city from the district known as Utopia – you know it? Of course there is a lot of poverty there now, but it was even poorer 30 years ago, trust me, although speaking for myself my parents weren’t exactly poor. My father was a schoolteacher and my mother worked in the village post office, so we were relatively well off compared to some of the kids I knew, most of whom came to school barefoot, if they attended school at all, until the age of 12 and then off they were sent into the fields. I, by contrast, had no choice. At the age of 12, I was sent to a boarding school in a nearby town and at the age of 18 I managed to claw my way into the nearest university to study teaching. I wasn’t a great student, but this was during the period – all too brief – when universities were free to just about anyone. Of course this led to all kinds of abuses and they no longer allow just anyone into university and a good thing too. And perhaps my father pulled a few strings, as after all it was the same faculty he had graduated when he'd been a student, before he married his high school sweetheart and they set off from Utopia with a revolutionary zeal that has all but vanished from this world nowadays. I suppose a similar path had been intended for me, but it was a path I was never to walk - but now I am skipping ahead, past the out limits of the story you've asked me to tell. Having been accepted into university, I boarded a bus into town and stayed in a boarding house for several weeks until I found a room rented by a widow in the neighbourhood that used to be known as Innocence. Of course everything there has changed, not just the name. Back then, only the worst imaginable kinds of desperados lived in Innocence – I’m speaking metaphorically, as you can well imagine. Who was it that said, ‘The price of innocence is a bad conscience?’ Well, whoever it was must have been a resident of Innocence at some point, and survived, or got out, which amounts to the same thing. Escaping Innocence was no easy feat and so logically it should come as no surprise that it didn't occur very often. Of course, it wasn’t the worst neighbourhood in town, and of that fact the residents were inordinately proud, which is sadly a very human trait. We're always looking out for someone worse off than ourselves, so that we can muster up some pride and gratitude, unless we truly are at the bottom, in which case our pride resides in the fact that things can't get any worse. I should know, I've been at the bottom a couple of times, although not, ironically, when I was living in Innocence. That'll have to be a story for another day. In those days, in summer, we spent most of our town by the water. There wasn’t a beach, just a path that wound between large limestone rocks that had once been jagged but whose edges had been worn smooth by the water. You'd go there with your friends and find yourself a rock with a flat surface or thereabouts and you would spread out your towel and camp yourself there for the rest of the day until long after it was dark, slipping into the water every now and then to swim to a nearby rocky islet and back, and then hauling yourself out of the water and resuming the patter of conversation. I was first taken there by a trio of biology students I'd befriended, three girls who looked like they could be sisters, their hair was identical, long fair ringlets. I suspected one of them at least wanted to take me to bed but I never figured out which one it was, they were thick as thieves, and needless to say it never happened. I'm ashamed to say I was still a virgin at this time. There was always a crazy guy by the water's edge who called himself all kinds of names – Cyril, Romeo and Grasshopper are three that spring most readily to mind – although most people called him Grasshopper to his face and The Grasshopper when talking about him. Hewas always there when we got there and usually still there when we left. He seemed to live by the water, accompanied by one or other combination of a half-dozen accomplices who were less charismatic and somewhat shadowy (we called them his apostles) and he always had a guitar with him, a cheap nylon string guitar, which he played constantly (none of the apostles played), singing sometimes and at other times talking, usually to one of the women there, or commentating on the passing parade of bathers as they walked past, in little invented fragments of song. He was a ridiculous man, really, a figure of fun, no one took him seriously. Usually he wore just a pair of very brief swimmers, over which his bulging brown stomach would hang ripely. Of course his skin was very brown, as you would expect, but also very lustrous, somehow, which was surprising given how much time he spent in the sun in nothing but his briefs. Perhaps he applied lotions, although I never saw it. He had long curly black hair – as I said, he cut a ridiculous figure, but perhaps because of this he was likeable, he was extremely likeable, especially by women. He was always chatting up one woman or another, and they rarely seemed to mind, neither the habituĂ©es of the beach or the first-timers. He chatted them up breezily, whether or not their men were with them, it didn’t seem to faze him, and usually it didn’t faze the men either, it was rare that the boyfriends gave him any grief, perhaps because of the fact that he cut such a ridiculous figure, and on the odd occasion when some brute did take exception the Grasshopper would beat a comic retreat. One day, he was chatting up one of the university friends I was with, the most attractive of the trio, a girl called Suzie, and she must have mentioned that I played the guitar, which was true, although I have no idea how she knew because I had never played her the guitar. I learned the guitar in Utopia, that is to say, the boys of Utopia had taught me to play the instrument in the style that was unique to Utopia at that time, which is to say left-handed (in those days we didn't know a guitar was strung to be played right-handed), which results in a quite distinctive sound, as you would know if you've ever seen a left-handed guitarist play a guitar strung for right-handers. Grasshopper handed his guitar to me, presumably to keep me busy while he chatted up Suzie, but when I started playing, the unusual Utopia style must have piqued his curiosity – he watched me play and asked my where I had learned to play, and told me that he had never seen a guitar played in this way before. Suzie slipped into the water and went for a swim to the rocky islet and he called over one of his occasional accomplices, one of his apostles, and they asked me to play some more, and so it didn't take long for me to become one of the Grasshopper's apostles, entering into a completely different world and - I say this without a trace of exaggeration - changing the course of my life forever. Incidentally, he and Suzie went on to have an affair, which predictably ended badly. And as for me, I began to spend every summer at the water’s edge, with Romeo and the apostles, and it was there, to answer your question, at the water's edge, in the company of the Grasshopper and a couple of the apostles, the following summer, that I met Carine.