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Rob was standing in a queue as the sun went down. It seemed like there were more people waiting to buy drinks than stood watching the band. It made him angry, until he realised he was one of them.
Everywhere he looked there were adverts. Every stall, every speaker, the stage; everything was sponsored by Carling or Barclays or American Express. The Cure, sponsored by Pepsi. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him, he’d never been one to notice those sorts of things before. He finally got to the front of the queue, bought two lagers, six pounds change from a 20, and then started back towards Katie.
Maybe it’s just a natural part of growing older, he thought. Nothing is as exciting as it used to be, it’s all just shadows of things that have happened before.
He was still pushing through the crowd when the song started. It hit him suddenly, even though he’d been waiting for it. He sometimes experienced nostalgia as an almost physical pain, a momentary feeling of loss that made him shudder. He stood still for a few moments before carrying on towards Katie.
She saw him coming towards her and gestured excitedly for him to hurry – she knew it was his favourite. He handed her a beer, and stood behind her, holding her waist as they swayed to the music, that beautiful, perfect melody.
On the train home they were quiet. They exchanged a few comments about the gig, their plans for the weekend.
“I was thinking about Joe a lot during the gig,” Rob said, breaking the silence.
“Oh. Really?” Katie glanced up from her phone.
“Wondering whether I made a mistake not inviting him to the wedding.”
She put her phone down and looked him in the eye. “You made the right choice,” she said, stroking his leg.
“Yeah. Maybe.” Rob took out his headphones from his bag, held them on his lap a moment. “I might listen to music if that’s OK?”
He kissed her on the cheek and then put on his headphones, staring out the window at the city lights flickering in the darkness.
Pushing through the crowd, it seemed like Rob might never find Joe again. He felt every bit the scrawny 16-year-old he was. Still, at least he’d managed to get served. He’d borrowed his brother’s ID for the night and had let his beard – if you could call it that – grow out a little, a few wispy hairs dotted sparsely around his chin.
Eventually, he spotted Joe, stood looking effortlessly cool as he always did, his long black hair pushed back behind his ears. He pushed through towards him, spilling a few drops of rum and coke on his way.
Joe’s face lit up as he saw him approaching. “Yes, mate! Didn’t think you’d get served.”
“Got lucky,” Rob said, unable to hide his delight at Joe’s approval.
“They’ve got to come on soon,” Joe said. “Been a good 15 minutes since the support.”
“Yeah. Hope so.” Rob took a swig of his drink, almost gagging at the taste, the alcohol burning in his throat.
Suddenly, the house lights went down, the stage lights came on, and everything went quiet.
As the band came out, he felt a visceral rush, the energy of the crowd flowing through him, a feeling of anticipation and possibility, of being part of something other than himself. He looked at Joe, who was staring rapt at the stage, seeing in the band everything he’d ever wanted to be.
Rob didn’t recognise the opening song, a newer one maybe, but the music was loud and warm and he felt it in his chest, mixing with the rum, making him feel fuzzy and light.
Time passed in a blur, the music swirling around him, and then he heard the opening notes of Just Like Heaven, Joe’s favourite, a song he often covered with his band. He turned to look at Joe, saw, perhaps for the first time, what it meant to him.
“I’m gonna play here one day,” Joe said after the song had finished, a few beads of sweat dripping down his forehead, his eyes wide with the intensity of dreams unrealised.
“I know you will,” Rob said. He genuinely meant it, didn’t doubt it for a moment.
As the night went on Rob felt like this was what he was meant for, this was who he was. He felt at home amongst the crowd, the people pushing into him, thousands of people moving as one.
The band went off, but the houselights stayed down. Rob and Joe looked at each other. They hadn’t been to many gigs, not enough to know for sure that the band were coming back on. After a couple of minutes they did, a huge roar erupting from the crowd.
And then he heard the drums, that bass line, that dreamy organ. Rob’s favourite song, the one he had been waiting for; it all sounded perfect, just as he’d imagined it.
Joe put his arm round him and they sang the whole thing together. They felt like brothers, more than brothers, they had shared something they would always remember. Rob felt a kind of elation he had never felt before, a sense that there were wide open roads for them to travel, that they were meant to travel them together.
For weeks, even months, after the gig, he remembered that feeling, could cling to it every now and then even as it faded or slipped from his grasp. He would always have Close To Me, would always have Joe.
It was 11 o’clock. Rob had been lying in bed awake since nine. Katie had left an hour ago to meet a friend for brunch. He was feeling a little hungover after the gig, but not unpleasantly so.
Since Katie had left, he’d been looking through his laptop at old photos and videos, letting memories wash over him. He realised how much of his past he almost never thought about, how short-term and selective his memory was. Huge parts of himself had simply drifted from his mind, or perhaps just been covered over with newer memories, like autumn’s leaves buried in snow.
Looking back through these old versions of himself, some felt so obscure, so alien. He could remember them only in the third person, as if he’d never actually experienced them himself – the way you remember something you’ve seen on television.
He saw a picture of Glastonbury 2008, his and Joe’s first festival together. They were standing in the crowd before Jay-Z’s headline set, six of his best friends from school, the summer before most of them had gone to university. He still saw one or two of them, but the rest had drifted out of his life, become different people, people he’d probably struggle to have a conversation with now.
He turned on his portable speaker and put on The Black Album, tried to recreate the feelings he’d felt that day, the euphoria of being lost in a sea of people, of feeling the energy of tens of thousands of people flowing through him. He listened to 99 Problems, that famous verse, tried to imagine himself there, rapping along to every word; there was a glimmer, a shadow, but nothing more.
He picked up his phone and typed out a message to Joe. He left it there, unsent, for a couple of minutes, staring into space, before picking it back up abruptly and pressing send.
It was the sort of generic city-centre pub which could have been anywhere. A chain of some sort, perhaps, Rob wasn’t sure. It was the seventh or eighth in a crawl through the city, and they were all starting to blend into one.
Rob had just turned 20, and had invited some of his school friends up to Bristol to celebrate his birthday. Most of them were dotted around the country at different universities, but Joe was still living at home.
Despite doing well in his exams, Joe had decided to stay at home and focus on music. His band were starting to find their way onto the gig circuit in London and there was a small buzz around them: a few mentions in little indie blogs and magazines, some interest from minor record labels.
Since then though, two years had passed with little progress. Talk of a record deal had never materialised, and they were still playing much the same venues – small pubs and clubs around London – watching bands come and go around them.
Rob looked over at Joe now. He had seen him in this state many times before. The life was drained from behind his eyes, he looked through you when he spoke, didn’t really listen to what you were saying.
A band were playing in the background, an inoffensive group playing unimaginative covers. Wonderwall, Seven Nation Army, Wish You Were Here.
Rob was talking to Lewis and Izzy, friends from his course, but was watching Joe out of the corner of his eye. He was staring at the band, an intensity now in his eyes.
“This lot are fucking shit,” he said, interrupting a conversation in which he was no longer really involved.
“Ha, they’re not that bad,” Rob said, in the most light-hearted tone he could summon. “They’re just a bit of fun.”
“Well, they’re shit. They’re not even that tight.”
“OK, mate. Well, everyone seems to be enjoying it so just leave it.”
“That’s because these people are idiots.”
Lewis, who had been biting his tongue, started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Joe asked, his voice shaking a little.
“What are you so angry about?” Lewis asked, smirking. A couple of others were looking over now, had heard the raised voices and sensed the tension.
“I’m not angry. I just think this band are shit.”
“Yeah, you said.”
“Alright, leave it, both of you,” Rob said, coming between the two of them.
“Why are you friends with this prick?” Joe said, talking to Rob as if Lewis weren’t there.
“Mate, why don’t you go for a cigarette or something?” Rob said. “Calm down a bit?” He saw his friends watching, could feel the dangerous mix of alcohol and male pride in the air.
“I don’t need to calm down.”
“You’re a joke, mate.” Lewis said, never one to leave an argument unfinished. “Play a few gigs in your local and think you’re Liam fucking Gallagher. No one cares about your opinion.”
Before Rob had a chance to react, Joe turned and swung at Lewis, catching him on the corner of the mouth and knocking him backwards. A couple of Lewis’s friends rushed in, and there was a small brawl before the bouncers intervened, lots of pushing and posturing but barely a punch thrown.
After trying ineloquently to argue his case to the bouncers, his slurred words only making things worse, Joe was kicked out. Since he was staying at his house, Rob had little choice but to leave as well, even though it was only half-ten.
They barely talked in the taxi home. Rob waited for an apology which never came. Instead, he listened while Joe ranted semi-coherently about Lewis, Bristol, the band in the pub, how everything was pretentious and shallow, how everyone was stupid. He left early the next morning without saying goodbye.
Rob was waiting at the bar. He was at the Prince of Wales in Brixton, just down the road from his house. It was surprisingly empty for a Saturday afternoon, a few people dotted around having lunch or watching the Arsenal game.
He hadn’t spoken to Joe in over a year, hadn’t hung out with him properly in nearly three. He felt strangely nervous, a feeling which in itself carried a sort of dull sadness.
He saw Joe coming, dressed in skinny black jeans and a navy Harrington jacket, looking uncharacteristically sheepish, like a child who’s worried that they’re in trouble.
“Hello, mate,” Rob said, getting up to give him a hug.
“It’s good to see you, man,” Joe said, his face softening into a wide, childlike smile.
Rob ordered two pints of Guinness, and they sat down, feeling for just a few fleeting moments as if they were 16 again.
“So, how’s life?” Rob asked, such a prosaic question to ask someone with whom he had once been so close.
“It’s good. Finally left the pub, got a job doing media sales for a magazine.”
“Oh nice. How is it?”
“Ah, you know. It’s dull, but it’s much better money. Too old to be doing a bar job anymore really.”
“That’s good, man.” Rob sipped his drink. “What about the music? You still playing with the band?”
“Yeah.” Joe swept his hair back with one hand, flipped the beer mat over in the other. “We’re still playing.”
There was a pause; they both sipped their drinks and looked around the pub, as if for clues on what to say next.
“How about you, anyway?” Joe said. “How’s work?”
“Yeah, fine. Still at the same place. I’m a Project Manager now. Same old, really.”
They sipped their drinks again, exchanged some more small talk. There was clearly a barrier there; neither of them seemed capable of getting past it.
Rob wondered whether there was anything to bind them together now other than nostalgia, the fading memories of adolescence. Could a friendship sustain itself on the past alone, or did it need to exist in the present?
“I’m talking to someone now,” Joe said after another break in the conversation, his eyes trying to focus on Rob’s but occasionally flitting towards his feet. “A counsellor. Trying to drink less, stopped doing coke and all that.”
“Yeah. I’m happier now, I think.”
“I’m happy for you.”
Joe was tapping his fingers on the table now, he looked like he was working himself up to say something. He looked up, a kind of fear in his eyes. “So, how was the wedding?”
Rob felt his face start to go a little red, but tried to sound breezy and conversational. “Yeah, it was good. Thanks.”
Joe took a big swig of Guinness. “You never replied to my congratulations message.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry, man. There were so many messages.” He felt ashamed at the casual cruelty in his comment, even if it was unintended.
“Look, that’s part of the reason I wanted to see you. To tell you in person. Of course I wanted you to be there, but it just wasn’t possible. Katie didn’t want there to be any drama. I’m sorry.” It was a cowardly move blaming Katie, when really they had both agreed not to invite him.
Joe looked down, looked as though he might cry. “That’s cool, man. Thanks for being honest.” He finished his drink, about a third of a pint down in one. “Listen, I’m gonna go. Sorry. It was good to see you again.”
He got up and left, barely a goodbye, and Rob sat there, the pub suddenly feeling much emptier than before; people without faces, disconnected, talking to no one. He finished his pint and left, listening to The Cure on the walk home.
Joe was out of place. It was obvious to everyone, especially Joe; Rob could see it written all over his face.
Rob and Katie were hosting a dinner party, a housewarming thing for their new place in Brixton. Joe was the only one of Rob’s school friends who had been invited. They didn’t see each other as much as they used to, but he still thought of him as one of his best friends; it would have felt wrong for him not to be there.
Ten people were crowded into their small living room, six around the table and four squeezed onto the sofa and the armchair with their plates on their laps. Most had finished eating, a few were still picking at the selection of little Spanish dishes that Katie had cooked. Ollie, Rob’s friend from Bristol, was talking about his new job writing for a fashion magazine, everyone politely listening.
It was a grown-up evening, or at least that was the idea; red wine and cheese, shirts and dresses. Joe was swigging the wine at twice the rate of anyone else, and Rob watched with dread as he downed almost a full glass.
“Can we put something a bit more upbeat on?” Joe shouted across the table. Something by Al Green was playing. Rob had just put on a playlist, a funk and soul compilation on Spotify.
“You can change it if you want,” Rob said, a little wary. “It’s just background music really.”
“It’s a bit boring.” Joe got up and grabbed Rob’s phone, swaying a little as he flicked through songs.
He put on a Father John Misty song, turned up the volume a couple of notches too many, and then sat back down next to Rob, perched on the arm of the sofa.
“Do you know this tune?” he asked, leaning in a little too close as he sometimes did when he was drunk.
“Yeah, it’s good, man.”
“Listen to the lyrics. He’s a genius.” Katie shot an anxious glance in Rob’s direction. Joe poured himself another glass of wine, spilling some on himself in the process.
“Joe!” Katie shouted over. “Can you be careful please? We just bought that sofa.”
“OK. Calm down. It’s just a sofa.”
“Mate, don’t be rude.” Rob knew where the situation was heading, had seen it so many times before.
“Can we have a dance or something?” Joe said, talking loudly to no one in particular.
“We’re just chatting,” Rob said. “Why don’t you take it easy? Have a glass of water?”
“All you lot do is sit around talking about your jobs.”
Katie stood up now. Everyone else was looking at their feet, cringing at the situation. “Joe, if you’re so bored, why don’t you just leave?”
“I’m just saying. Can’t we talk about something else?”
“What do you want to talk about, Joe? Yourself? Your band? Do any other topics interest you?”
“Anything’s better than listening to you talk about HR.”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Rob said, standing up and looking down at Joe. “You’re in our house, stop being so rude.”
Joe looked straight past him at Katie. “Rob used to be fun before he met you. You’ve sucked the life out of him.”
“OK, mate.” Rob put his arm round Joe. “Think it’s best if you go home. You’re embarrassing yourself. I’ll order you an Uber.”
“Don’t worry, I’m going.” He brushed Rob off. “Can think of better ways to spend a Saturday night.”
He drained his glass, picked up his jacket and stumbled out the door, leaving the shattered pieces of the evening in his wake.
Sunday evening was slipping away, the last embers of the weekend slowly dying out. Rob and Katie had just finished dinner and were half-watching I’m a Celebrity.
Rob was staring blankly at the screen. He still felt strange after seeing Joe the day before, his head crowded with a vague sort of guilt that he couldn’t shake.
He reached for his phone and opened up Instagram. Scrolling through, he saw a post by Joe’s band; they were playing in one of their old pubs in Vauxhall. He sat and considered it for a moment, before standing up and grabbing his jacket.
“I’m gonna go out for a bit.”
“What? It’s Sunday night. Where are you going?”
“Joe’s band are playing in Vauxhall.”
“Joe? You haven’t seen him in years.”
“I saw him the other day.”
“I’m just…I don’t know. I feel like I’ve let him slip out of my life.”
“Yeah. With good reason.”
“I know. And I’m not asking you to like him. I just feel like I owe him this.” He looked at his feet. “He asked about the wedding. It was horrible.”
“Well, he’s only got himself to blame,” Katie said firmly. She was tough on Joe, but Rob knew it was mainly for his sake. She had always liked him when they’d first started going out.
“I know.” Rob picked up a lighter from the table, flicked it on and off a couple of times. “He’s had a tough time. I feel like I just dropped him when he became an inconvenience.”
“You tried your best. There’s a limit.”
“Yeah.” He paused a couple of seconds, staring absently at the TV. “Anyway, I’m gonna go. I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Arriving at the pub, he ordered a pint of Guinness and sat down at a table at the back. 20 or so people were stood watching the first band, a bluesy group who were playing a cover of Angie by the Stones.
After a few more songs, Joe’s band came on. Rob stood up to watch and Joe spotted him straight away. It took him a couple of seconds to compose himself and introduce the band.
They started with an original song, one they’d been playing for years. Rob recognised it straight away, remembered Joe playing it to him on an acoustic guitar when they were 16 or 17. He remembered how desperate Joe had been for his approval, how much he’d wanted him to love it.
The band were tight, everything sounded good, but Rob couldn’t take his eyes off Joe. In amongst everything that had happened, he’d forgotten how good he was – such a talented guitarist, such a charismatic performer. More than anything, he’d forgotten how passionate he was, how much he cared. He wished he still cared about anything as much as Joe cared about music.
After a couple more original songs, he saw Joe go over to whisper in one of his bandmate’s ears. He returned to the front of the stage, put down his electric guitar, and picked up an acoustic. He looked at Rob, barely able to hold his glance for a second, before going into another song.
There were a few chords on the guitar and then a soft keyboard came in. Close To Me. Rob recognised it almost straight away. It was a beautiful version, soft and tender and full of melancholy. He stood and listened, feeling something he hadn’t felt in a long time. He closed his eyes for just a moment and let the music wash over him.
All the gigs they’d been to together, all the times they’d walked home arms round each other, swaying to songs with no music, singing every word; all of it flashed before him, danced on the edges of his mind, fleeting snippets that came and went in an instant.
Joe looked up at him, caught his eye briefly, and Rob could see him fighting a smile, not wanting to break his on-stage persona.
In that moment, he knew that they existed in the present, could exist in the future. Music would always bind them together, had always bound them together in the past.
There was something powerful there, something vital that he didn’t want to let go. Friendship – real friendship – was something that was continually reborn, something that found a way to survive. He was determined to keep it alive, even when it looked like it was fading or receding from his mind.
He started thinking of all the things he would say to him afterwards, all the questions he wanted to ask, but then he let it all drift away, everything except the music. In that moment, the music was enough.