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Morning after the little get together at their flat followed by drinks in town for Jonny’s birthday – which Chloe had to organise for him – we all reconvened for al fresco brunch at a café beside the city canal. Citizens ambled past our table looking up at the clear sky or down at the bright pavement with polite Sunday smiles.
Everyone else had just left. A waitress, who Jonny knew was half-Sri Lankan, came over to clear away our bean juice- and sautéed organic closed-cup mushroom-stained plates. She had a pretty smile, which she used against Jonny to coerce him into another flat white after I had asked her for a third americano. She took the plates and left.
“You didn’t have to get another,” I said to him. “I would’ve happily sat here alone with my hangover.”
Jonny smiled. His biceps, which are smaller than I remembered – but tanned and still well maintained – flexed beneath his plain blue t-shirt as he pushed up on the chair arms and fell back in more comfortably. “I’m in no rush,” he said.
I flipped my sunglasses down as the sun’s reflection caught in the glass-topped table. I lit a cigarette.
“How’s Chloe? She messaged you?”
“She has, yeah,” said Jonny.
He looked around and said nothing, so I prompted him.
“She’s been throwing up again.”
“Christ, mate. Don’t you think you should go back and make sure she’s okay?”
“She’ll be fine,” he said.
“She seemed pretty hammered last night.”
“Are you sure she’ll be—”
The half-Sri Lankan girl with the nice smile came back with our coffees.
“Ah. Perfect. Thank you,” Jonny said, looking her in the eyes before she turned and went. He attended to his sugar requirements. “She’ll be fine, Cam. Her sister came around this morning to look after her. She said herself she’d be okay. She wanted me to come meet everyone here. It’s my fucking thirtieth after all.” He looked around at the empty chairs surrounding our two tables pushed together – some tucked under, some left out. “Was my thirtieth,” he added. “Thanks for staying.”
“No worries at all, mate. Feeling’s mutual,” I said. “I can never do too much on a hangover until a few of these anyway.”
I sipped my black coffee and noticed the ocean blue in Jonny’s eyes, complementing his clean and manicured sandpaper beard and rugged mouse-brown hair. By all accounts, Jonny could have been a surfer or a model or both. But the truth is he’s, as they say, a bit too vanilla for either.
“I can’t believe that out of everyone who came you were the one to stay,” said Jonny. “I mean that in the nicest possible way. In a really nice way, actually.”
I shrugged and said, “You don’t see a friend in five years, I guess it’s nice to see them for more than five minutes.”
“I appreciate it,” Jonny said.
“You don’t have to keep saying that.” I sipped more coffee and felt it inject a shot of energy into my pulse. But it was drying my throat. I looked around for the waitress. Further along the bright pavement, near the inner-city ring road bridge, a large international crowd of tourists were gathered, waiting to be led down some metal steps for a guided boat tour.
“I do appreciate it, though,” Jonny started. “Theyall left early last night, then ‘dashed off’ early this morning. I hate how things change. I knew it’d be like this.”
I wanted to say something to settle Jonny but my head was hurting now.
“Yeah,” I said.
“See. You get it,” he said. “Last night Laura, Shane, Chloe, and I had a conversation about shades of blinds. Fucking shades of blinds. Which would’ve been okay if someone made a joke, like, ‘Oh god, what’s happened to us – we’re having a conversation about fucking shades of blinds?’ But nobody did. Everyone took it seriously and wanted to show off their knowledge on the subject.”
He shook his head and sipped his foamy drink.
“Chloe instigated that conversation.”
“Hm,” I said. I caught the waitress’ eye and gestured putting a glass to my lips and mouthed, “Water.” She nodded and held up one finger and then two. I asked Jonny whether he needed some water.
“Oh,” he said, looking at me and then the waitress and fumbling like the proverbial rabbit in classic headlights. “No, thanks. Thanks.” He smiled at the waitress and I held up one finger. She went back inside.
“So?” I said.
“Did you agree on a colour of blinds?”
Jonny laughed. “It’s good to see you, Cam.”
But I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to talk about to me. I kept on probing. “You’re living together, right?”
“Who? Me and Chloe?” He blew what my sister calls an exasperberry – a raspberry with exasperation. “I guess. Not sure how it happened, but…”
The waitress came over with the glass of water, and said, “One glass of water,” as she set it down in front of me. Jonny didn’t smile or look at her, this time. But after she’d turned to leave he called her back and apologised and asked for one of his own.
“She’s a lovely girl … Chloe is,” Jonny said.
I nodded and downed my small glass of cool water from the tap.
“She really is,” he said. “You know I think that. But, I don’t know. I was enjoying seeing her while we were living apart. Then she asks to live together because it’s practical. Split the rent. Fine. Then suddenly we’re going to family garden parties hand-in-hand and her old relatives are making quips about marriage after they’ve had a few rum cocktails, and wink, and nudge me in the side, and laugh out loud, even though we’ve never even officially said we’re together. Then she pulls me into an earnest conversation about shades of fucking blinds!”
Our half-Sri Lankan waitress, who looked mid-twenties – twenty-seven at most – placed Jonny’s water on the table, raised her eyebrows at the profanity she’d just arrived in time to hear, and then looked at me with a pseudo-offended expression. She turned to Jonny. “Some soap with your water to wash your mouth out?” she asked. Jonny said nothing. Then she cracked a smile and said, “I’m kidding.”
“See,” said Jonny. “She gets it.”
The waitress walked away and Jonny’s disposition fell again.
“It’s so comfy with Chloe.”
“Nice,” I said, but I don’t think he heard me.
“So fucking comfy,” he went on. “Just fucking comfy.” He necked the rest of his coffee. “And can I tell you something else, Cam?”
I couldn’t say no.
“She only had two drinks last night. She was putting it on. But … fuck … she is genuinely ill this morning. I mean, she says she’s been taking her pill, but—”
“Christ, Jonny. I haven’t seen you in half a decade and now you’re laying this on me? Come on, mate.”
“I mean, I’m just speculating.”
“Jesus Christ. I think you’d know.”
The queue of tourists started filing down the steps and out of view, led by an overzealous guy in a white short-sleeved shirt and captain’s hat.
Jonny looked at me for a while, then said, “It is good to see you, Cam.”
I nodded, finished my coffee, and looked away.
A few moments later I turned back, and caught Jonny staring at my empty cup and empty glass, and then he edged further across the table towards me, and leaned in with his elbows on the glass tabletop. “Cam. Can I ask you something?” he said. “Have you ever had a threesome?” His eyes flicked across to the waitress, who was slightly bent over depositing coffees on a table from a tray, and then he looked back at me.
“Mate, what? I’m not interested in that. No, thanks. Fucking Christ, Jonny. What’s going on?”
He slumped back into his chair. “I don’t know,” he said. Pretty soon his eyes creased up and his bottom lip started quivering. “I’m sorry.” His nose inhaled deeply, as though the slim volume of water vapour in the air could moisten the dirt in his throat. It sounded as though all the world’s driest earth was down that throat. “It’s just, I’m not good, Cam. I’m a let-down … to everyone. To myself. I feel like everything in my life was building up to me becoming the happiest person in the world. And now look.”
“Jonny,” I said. “Listen. It just seems to me you’ve lost a little control. That’s all. And you’re hungover; that doesn’t help. And you’ve had two cups of the frothiest, driest drink you could imagine. Have your water. Christ’s sake.”
He did as I said. I pulled my jacket closer around me and thought about another cigarette. Then I had one, and we didn’t speak a word from me lighting it to dabbing it in the white pot ashtray.
“You’re right,” Jonny said. “I have lost a little control. Maybe a lot. There are just things I thought I would’ve done before now. Things I still want to do.”
“Okay,” I said. “Like what? Apart from … that.”
He looked down and laughed to himself. Then he looked up at me. “Just … things.”
The sun glinting across the gentle canal water was disturbed only by steady passing boats and dinghies. It was coming up to midday.
“Do you want to get a pint somewhere, or a bit of lunch?”
“Look,” I said. “Jonny, you need to go and see your girlfriend and talk about—”
“She’s not my girlfriend. I never said to anyone that Chloe was my girlfriend.”
“Christ, mate. Look at you, Jonny – you’re living with her. People would assume that you are together. Listen to how it sounds – you and Chloe live together, you’re both now thirty, and you may even have a baby on the way.”
We both let the words hang in the air for a while.
The waitress came over.
“More coffee or any nibbles for you guys, or are your veins already popping out from all the caffeine?”
Jonny looked up at her and smiled. “Well, I quite enjoy a Sunday morning heart palpitation, so I’ll have one more if…”
He looked at me. They both did. I stared back at Jonny and shook my head.
“No?” asked the good-looking waitress. “Too bad.”
“Just another glass of water then, please. And the bill, if that’s okay?”
“I guess so,” the waitress joked, before taking our cups and leaving.
Jonny put his sunglasses on. “I’ll get these,” he said. “Birthday money.”
“It’s fine, I’ll chip in for my bit. And you still get birthday money?”
“No, no. I got it, honestly. And yes,” Jonny said.
He took out his contactless and then put it back. He glanced up at me and paused when he noticed I was watching him. But then he carried on regardless. He slid out a £10- and a £5-note – a hefty tip given we’d paid for all of the food and most of the drinks already – and removed a little card from a zip pocket inside his leather wallet.
“Jonny,” I said, “are you sure about this?”
Jonny directed his sunglasses towards me. “Absolutely,” he said. “I am. Thank you.”
When the waitress came back he slammed the full glass of water down his neck in front of her and thrust the money and tray with receipts on into her hand almost before it was on the table. He’d folded the notes around his business card like a hotdog so she wouldn’t be able to miss it when she straightened the cash out to file it into the till.
As it happened, she found the card before we’d even left the premises. Jonny nudged me as we were walking away on the canal pavement.
“Look,” he said.
The girl was looking at Jonny, smiling above the other customers. She gave Jonny a little wave and then disappeared inside behind the blinding sun’s reflection off the glass-walled café.
“I could fucking kiss you,” said Jonny, to me.
We reached the bridge and shook hands. I told him I’d get the early train back as I had a bit of work to do before Monday. He said he was disappointed, but glad I’d made it.
I quickly passed a Subway and a few takeaways and shops along the busy road and was soon almost out of sight of the bridge. I turned back just before rounding the corner. Jonny was still there, hands on the stone wall overlooking the river and the international crowds on the tourist boats, and he was smiling his heart out. The man looked as though he’d never been hungover in his life.
About Josh Oldridge
Josh Oldridge recently graduated as a mature student from the University of Exeter. His work has been included in Scrittura, Sarasvati, Bandit Fiction, and the 2019 edition of the University of Exeter’s annual publication, Q Journal. More stories are forthcoming in 2020. He is currently working on his first novel.
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