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The way it used to be, every Sunday I would get out of bed around twelve and walk down to the old docks area and meet my friends at a café called Bonham and Jones. The city council was trying to “regenerate” the area and I think they were giving tax breaks to this kind of place: coffee shops, restaurants where ethnic food is served by non-ethnic people, groceries where onions are sold at the price of meat. Bonham and Jones was full of jam-jar-lightbulbs and reclaimed wood, and we used to sit for hours around the biggest table (never fewer than ten) and eat avocado on sourdough and drink endless coffees. We looked like an advertiser’s millennial wet dream.
Regrettably, we were real-life urban twenty-somethings rather than our sitcom counterparts, so we could only afford our signature vacuous lifestyle because our friends David and Luciana worked at the café and charged us a fraction of what they should have. The place worked the old-fashioned way, with slips from the waiters’ pads going straight to the kitchen and the waiters using carbon copies to ring up the bill later. For me, a typical brunch was something like an espresso, a freshly squeezed orange juice, Eggs Atlantic, and three cappuccinos, and a typical bill was a croissant and a single espresso. Four pounds thirty, please.
It was beautiful. I fucked it all up.
First, I tried it with Lauren.
Marjana was a friend of mine from university and Lauren was a friend of hers from home. She had studied in some shitty university town and as soon as she graduated she moved in with Marjana, desperate to live somewhere with more than two nightclubs. I quickly developed a big crush on her, but not the normal kind where your mouth disconnects from your brain and the most fleeting eye contact gives you Hollywood-Vietnam flashbacks; I found it easy to talk to her and we became friends.
Lauren was brought down to Bonham and Jones on her first Sunday in the city, and she became one of the core brunch crew, the five of us who were there every week without fail: Marjana, wearing last night’s clothes and rolling cigarettes; Sean, stirring Worcestershire sauce into his coffee or field-testing some other bizarre cure for the night before; Amy, whose hair would keep itself in a bun on the edge of disintegration until there was a plate of food for it to fall into; myself, monosyllabic until enough coffee and butter was down me; and Lauren, sipping macchiatos, looking like she belonged in a different class of café in a different class of decade. No one wore a hangover better.
The rest were a revolving cast. Sometimes some feckless boy would be sucked into Lauren’s orbit for a week or two before he was flung back out. She would look at me or Marjana and roll her eyes when he spoke and do the same over her shoulder when she left with him. Then the next week, or the week after that, we would laugh at the gloriously petty reasons she was finished with him. Didn’t wash the back of the plates, asked me if I came when I clearly fucking didn’t. Literally. Has. An. Xbox. In. His. Room. Every time she deemed some new squeeze not good enough, I’d enjoy a secret satisfaction in a competitor’s failure, although I wasn’t so much a competitor as a spectator.
Within seven or eight months of her arrival on the brunch scene, my crush on her had spiralled out of all control. I began to wonder if I should just tell her how I felt, which was of course a fucking awful idea.
We were at Sean’s house the night it happened. He had found a barbeque on the street a few days before, and he’d cleaned it, made a grill-grate and kebab skewers out of wire hangers, gone and bought fifteen kilos of high-quality charcoal off a Turkish restaurant, and invited us all over for dinner. The only problem was, it was March and it was raining.
I pointed this out to him as I stood in his hallway, soaking wet from the two-minute walk from the bus stop.
“Not a problem,” he said, and opened the basement door, filling the hallway with smoke.
I followed him down the steps, a bottle of Pimm’s in one hand and a packet of cocktail umbrellas in the other. “Christ, Sean, it’s like seventeenth-century hell in here.”
“Yeah, it’s a shame there’s no ventilation. But in the basement I can stain the ceiling black and they won’t take my deposit.”
I looked towards the ceiling, which I could barely see for the smoke.
“Isn’t this, like, lethal?”
“Nah, I come down here for like thirty seconds at a time to turn the food. We’re all in the living room.”
In the living room, the rest of the core brunch crew and some of Amy’s friends were sitting around drinking mojitos out of pint glasses and mugs. Lauren was wearing a Daffy Duck t-shirt and blue Levi’s. Marjana had sunglasses on.
“In defiance of the fucking weather,” she explained as I stared at her. Sean shoved a thermos flask into my hand. I sipped from it. Mojito.
I sat on the floor next to Lauren and told her I liked her t-shirt.
“Daffy Duck,” she said, “is my idol. I wish I was more like him.”
“How so? Feathered?”
She laughed. “I mean, like, he takes no shit from anyone. Make me a Pimm’s.”
I made her a Pimm’s, and I made one for myself. Then I made us each another. Then Sean brought us mojitos, then bad mojitos, then mugs of soda water and limp mint shot through with rum. To our surprise, most of the food coming out of the basement was edible, some pretty tasty, and we sent it down with crap white wine. When I stood up, I found I was pretty drunk. Lauren kicked at my knees from the floor and I fell against the wall and we giggled.
“You two have been going at your own pace, man,” said Sean, tearing lamb off the bone with his teeth.
Lauren grinned at me. I went to the kitchen and mixed two more Pimm’s. I picked the last few leaves of mint off the sprigs littered over the counter top, and then had a look in the fridge. Cucumber. Sheer class. I cut a few slices and chucked them in our drinks.
“Jeremy, you’re bleeding,” Lauren said as I handed her a perfect Pimm’s with a little umbrella in it.
I was. All over the glass, which sort of spoilt the aesthetic effect of the cucumber.
“Come on,” she said, and got up off the floor and grabbed me by my bleeding finger and led me into the kitchen.
She turned on the cold tap and stuck my finger under it, and started looking through drawers for a plaster.
“You managed to cut yourself slicing a cucumber,” she said, shaking her head.
“Sean’s knives are really fucking sharp.”
“They’re actually safer that way,” Sean yelled from the bathroom.
Lauren found a box of plasters and came back over to the sink. She turned off the tap and squeezed kitchen roll around my finger.
“Hold that there ’til your finger’s dry,” she said, and unwrapped the plaster. “Oh God, you’re loving this, aren’t you?”
I looked at the floor.
“Boys just want to be mothered. A woman should be whore in the bedroom, a cook in the kitchen and a mother the rest of the time, is that it?”
“I don’t know. Around here it seems like a man should be a cook in the basement.”
“And a woman should be a mother in the kitchen.” She sealed the plaster around my finger. “Don’t go playing with knives again.”
“Sorry,” I said.
She laughed. “You’re the first man I’ve heard in a while to apologise and mean it.”
“I regret everything I do. Don’t take it as a sign of good character or anything.”
She took a packet of tobacco from the back pocket of her Levi’s. “Cigarette?”
“You know I never smoke.”
“I know you never smoke sober.”
Outside, Lauren lit my cigarette for me and we stood smoking and looking at the junk in Sean’s garden. The rain had died right down to the kind of drizzle that’s just enough to be irritating.
“I don’t know why he makes us smoke outside when he’s been having a fucking barbecue indoors,” she said.
I squinted at something near the shed. “Is that a motorbike?”
“I think it once was.”
“I feel so sorry for his housemates.”
“I wouldn’t. I don’t.”
I glanced at her to try and see from her face what she meant. She took a drag on her cigarette, eyes straight ahead, and blew smoke out through barely pursed lips. I thought of the years when I had nearly been convinced that smoking wasn’t cool.
“What, you know some and they’re dickheads?” I said. “Or you love what Sean’s done with the garden?”
“I know one. One dickhead. Boy dickhead.”
I just nodded, to give her a chance to drop it if that was what she wanted. We stood in silence for a few moments. I could hear the others screaming and giggling about something inside. The wind blew Lauren’s hair out from behind her ears, and a few drops of rain had smudged her eyeliner slightly. She looked incredible.
“He’s away at the moment. Sean told me. Otherwise, no way I would have come tonight.”
“He came to Bonham and Jones once. Tall boy, blond hair, dressed like he thinks he’s in The Doors or something.”
“The one who dried all his washing in his room with the windows shut?”
“His room was like a swamp.”
“Anyway, the guy was doing too many drugs,” she said. “He thought his dealer was his mate. We all hung out. This was all at his old house, not this place. I didn’t actually meet him through Sean.”
She seemed to be talking to herself more than to me. I let her.
“One day we were playing records in his old garden on one of those little suitcase turntables. It was so nice, Jeremy. Sitting in the sun and playing with the grass and stuff. And he kept trying to get me to go to bed and I said no, fuck me right here on the grass, and I kept teasing him and he was so cute. He’d nearly give in and then look around at all the windows and stuff and say no and finally I went inside with him and we had sex and I fell straight asleep afterwards and when I woke up and went downstairs he was literally going down on his ex in the kitchen. Like, she was sitting up on the kitchen table, and he was just eating her out.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“Which, by the way, hadn’t seemed to occur to him earlier. Not that I’d have been able to get there with socks hanging in my face in that fucking swamp-room. But there’s more. Ask me if he apologised.”
“Surely he apologised.”
“He propositioned us for a three-way.”
“Lauren,” I said, “I can’t believe anyone would treat you like that. I mean, no one should be treated like that, but I can’t believe that even some bastard who would do something like that in general wouldn’t appreciate how fucking wonderful you are and not do it to you in particular, even if it’s just purely selfishly not to lose you.”
“That’s sweet, Jeremy.”
She put an arm around my waist and I put mine around her shoulder. She shuffled around to face me and I put my other arm around her and held her. She rested her forehead on my chest and then looked up at me through the hair falling across her face. It was something of a perfect moment.
“The worst thing is,” she said, “I did it.”
“What do you think?”
I needed a few seconds. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I had low self-esteem and still thought I really liked him and I suppose I wanted to try being with a girl or whatever, although it really isn’t being with a girl at all.”
“What was it like?”
“Have you ever run across a busy road and dropped your phone but you have to get through the traffic to the other side and then all you can do is turn around and look at your phone as like twenty trucks just drive over it?”
I hadn’t, but I nodded.
“Yeah, like that, but with my soul.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that, except what I had really wanted to for months.
“Lauren,” I said, “the thing is, I’m really into you. I really like you, and I know we’re friends and stuff but I definitely feel romantically about you, and it’s so hard to hear about all your boy problems and everything when I know I’d treat you so much better if I had the chance.”
She looked up into my eyes. I kissed her.
“Oh” she said, and broke away.
We looked at each other. The sound of disco classics playing in the living room seemed to come from very far away.
“That’s really sweet but I don’t think I feel like that about you,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“I realise that was a lot. Maybe you need some time to think about everything I said.”
“I don’t think it’s that I need time, Jeremy, ’cause honestly, it’s not like I haven’t thought about it in the past.”
“Well, we were both were single, and we got along, so of course I thought about it. But I kind of decided I probably didn’t like you in that way, and then we worked so well as friends that I thought, definitely not.”
“So that’s it? You made your decision months ago without me even knowing I had a chance?”
“I wouldn’t say you had a chance as such. It was just kind of a thought I entertained when I was new in town and everything.”
“Excuse me? Just a thought you fucking entertained?”
“I’m sorry. That sounds really bad. I’m just, like, trying to be totally honest with you.”
“Well in that case, Lauren, can you explain what the fuck is so wrong with me anyway? I wash the back of the fucking plates and I got rid of my Xbox when you made me feel like a loser about it. I don’t do any of the little things you complain about. What do you even want?”
“Fucking hell, Jeremy, if you’re going to have a go at me I regret even trying to be nice about it.”
“It’s like every loser and scumbag you come across has a free pass to fuck you over but I can’t tell you how I feel because you flipped a coin like six months ago.”
She stared at me, letting me go on. Under her gaze I started to realise I sounded unreasonable, but I wasn’t quite finished being a dickhead.
“How the fuck do you expect me to feel when you confide in me about all the men who aren’t good enough for you? I’m not your gay best friend.”
She started to say something but stopped herself. Donna Summer came on in the living room and I heard Sean whoop and something break.
“I guess it’s partly my fault,” she said, and went inside.
Lying in bed on Sunday morning, gathering consciousness in the snug of the duvet, I considered not going to Bonham and Jones. But I would have to see Lauren sooner or later, and although I’d rather not do it hungover, there were worse times and places than the middle of the day in a café, where neither of us was drunk or willing to make a scene. Lauren would probably think I was being silly if I didn’t go. She’d brush it off; maybe we’d laugh about it, pretend it had been because I was drunk.
The walk cleared my head a bit, as it always did, and I hadn’t even drunk that much on Saturday night, just a few pints while watching a friend of a friend’s band, so by the time I got to Bonham and Jones, I felt alright. On the way in I asked David for a coffee and kissed Luciana on both cheeks because she’s Italian.
Lauren was already sitting at the big table, looking gorgeous. If she was nervous it didn’t show. Her hands shook when she drew her coffee to her lips, but everyone’s hands always shook on those Sunday mornings after Saturday nights.
I smiled at her as I sat down and she smiled back and David brought me my coffee and I started chatting to the peripheral bruncher on my right, whose name I forget. The guy only came about every other week for two months or so.
Marjana went for a cigarette and Lauren slipped into her seat on my left as Luciana came to the table with her pen and pad. I ordered another espresso and a freshly squeezed orange juice and avocado on sourdough with a poached egg.
“Look,” Lauren whispered, hand on my arm, “I’m not going to pretend like it doesn’t feel weird. It feels really weird, but it’s just today. I don’t want us to stop brunching. It’s not going to be like this in a month, you know.”
I didn’t even apologise. All I could do was sort of nod.
“I just know in a couple weeks it’ll be back to normal.” She gave me a smile that, even as it tore my heart out through my eye sockets, made me believe her.
Then I got us all busted and got David and Luciana fired.
Marjana and I ate in silence, while others joked around and talked bullshit as usual, Sean and Amy pretending not to notice Lauren’s absence. The avocado was under-ripe, the toast was under-toasted, and the poached egg was wet with water on the outside and too solid in the yolk. I thought about how wrong I was when I thought Lauren would shrug it off and it would be fine, and I thought about how I’d completely fucked everything for our social circle, and then I felt terrible for thinking about things like that instead of feeling sorry for Lauren. The more coffee I drank, the worse I felt, so instead of staying until closing time at five as usual, I decided to go home at about three.
I waited until Luciana was behind the till and then went up to pay my bill. Luciana pretended to read her carbon copy in earnest before tapping something into the till.
“Nineteen pounds sixty, please,” she said.
“Come on, man, I’m not in the mood for jokes.”
Luciana looked at me wide-eyed and silent.
“Alright,” I said, “I’m sorry I snapped at you. But seriously, just do the bill the normal way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just do the fucking thing where you hugely undercharge me.”
Luciana sighed. Like Daffy Duck when he knows Elmer Fudd is behind him with a shotgun, I didn’t need to turn around and see the general manager of Bonham and Jones. I handed over twenty pounds and put my forty pence change in the tip jar and walked out.
I saw Lauren one more time, about six weeks after the disasters. I had drafted countless apology texts, each one more inadequate than the last as it became too late, but in the end she texted me first, just asking if I wanted to go for a drink. I followed her cue to act like nothing had happened and said yeah.
We arranged to meet in a bar called Manzarek, which was quite fancy. I got there before her and got a beer and found a corner table and sat there feeling underdressed and underfinanced. Lauren walked in wearing a Breton jumper and gold earrings with her hair up, looking like she belonged there. She got a gin and tonic and sat down and we talked about which bars had a better or worse or selection of gins and tonics, and then I told her I had got Luciana a new job. We laughed about how I got her fired, which eased the tension a bit, and I got up the nerve to apologise.
“Lauren, I’m sorry about what I did at Sean’s,” I said.
“Really, don’t worry about it,” she said, and then we spent an hour trying to talk about other things. I might have left, but she was waiting to meet her new boyfriend to go to a late screening of some film in one of those cinemas where you can get ripped off on wine and beer instead of getting ripped off on Coke and popcorn. I couldn’t really leave her waiting alone.
Eventually he turned up, fucking Carhartt jacket and all, and stood there looking at his fucking Casio watch while Lauren got her things together. I flicked an ice cube around the table with a straw until the silence became unbearable.
“So,” I said, nodding towards the Blue Note logo on his shirt, “are you a musician?”
“I play instruments, but I’m more of an artist.”
“Ready,” Lauren said. Her new boyfriend looked back at his watch and glared at her, then took her by the hand and glared at me and led her out.
“Bye, Jeremy,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll see you soon.”
I miss the old brunch crew. I still saw Sean a lot after the Bonham and Jones thing was over, but he’s kind of vanished in Eastern Europe now. Last I heard from him he was learning to distil grain spirit in Bulgaria or maybe Moldova. I saw Marjana a few more times, but she never really stopped bollocking me for everything so I just let us drift apart. I don’t think I’ve seen Amy since the last brunch. It turns out that was one of those friendships which relies on the group.
Oddly enough, Luciana’s the only one I see regularly. I told her about a vacancy at British Netball, where an old uni mate of mine works as a graphic designer, and she got the job, which made me feel a lot better about getting her fired. She does social media strategizing or something: we’re still the millennial dream. I don’t think she’s ever played netball in her life. David’s next job was at an Amazon warehouse. I haven’t heard from him in a while, but I hear he’s at least back in hospitality nowadays.
I work around the corner so sometimes Luciana and I take the tram back together or hang out in town having a few drinks on a weeknight. We laugh now about it how I got her fired, and she really doesn’t mind since her new job pays better, though she has to work a proper week. I think she has a crush on me; sometimes she invites me to back to hers, especially if we’ve had a few, and she’s lovely, but somehow I’m not really interested and I never go. I like being friends with her. I hope she never tells me how she feels.
I accept that I’ve probably seen Lauren for the last time, but it’s a shame it was that evening in Manzarek. I want the last time to have been in Bonham and Jones, hungover and sipping macchiatos, the way I remember her best.
But I fucked that all up, and it was mostly my fault.