Bowling Alley

Picture credit: David Iannace

April again. Paul’s birthday. And we’re back, the four of us, at the bowling alley.

The first time, Paul is turning twenty. Palace Paul. Big one. That first night bowling we’re lean and soft at once, still boys. And I’m in it. One of the four, bowling strikes, grabbing arms, jumping up.

First night. Adham goes to get us drinks. Big pitcher for us. Beer. Crisps. Tall glass of gin and tonic for himself.

When he’s gone we bowl, and then it’s his turn. So we wait. He knows we’re waiting, walks back fast. Sweats his smart shirt.

And he’s quick, and tray in hand, and wobbling.

Nearly at us, really close, and he runs. And then steps. And he trips. And everything goes everywhere. The tray, the drinks. And beer on our tops, on our shoes, the floor. We look at each other. Startled. Beer smell. Look at each other, then piss ourselves laughing. Grab Adham close and muss his hair and chatshout.

Others come later, too. Friends from their school, our sixth form, Deptford. And from Goldsmiths. And some of Adham’s friends from CSM.

We bowl until the staff ask us to leave. Then hang about a bit and smoke outside. Joe gets a kebab at Bucketmouth. Adham tells the story of the fall. Our clothes half-dry, half beer-wet.

I stand with Ella P and Eve, from uni, for a bit. Eve gives me a cigarette, touches my hair. I kind of think we’re going to snog, or something later, and then Paul comes over drunk-pink, and annoying, and hugs me. “It’s my birthday,” he’s saying.

“We know,” says Eve, blowing smoke out and laughing. “It said on Facebook.”Eve and Paul go get chips together. Me and Ella half mumble, go and join the other, bigger group.

Then we’re at the Fox and Firkin, and music, and dancing all together. Doing bits all in a circle, passing dancemoves round. And then all mess, all move. And I shake my whole big body. Later, see that Eve and Paul are snogging. Crackle with the energy, and jealousy.

And sweating and the music ripping through me. Dancing drastic, lashing out.  Let’s go. Let’s fucking go, I think. My body’s all in.

And then Adham is back beside me, dancing too. And he’s gentle, you know, checking me, my mood. And Joe joins in, then Paul. And Eve. Holding Paul’s arm. And Clare from Early Modern. And we’re going for it, really. And it’s good.

And even there. Even then as it’s happening, I’m trying to remember it, for later. I’ll want this again, I think.

I’ll want to think about this, and about our bleary faces on the nightbus. The April moon outside. Me and the boys woofing like wolves, our big laughs. The four of us. Eve and Caitlin eating 5-wing meals. Mouth full of chicken, eyes bright.

On Paul’s twenty-first, we bowl again. He gets drunk as a skunk. Really happy, almost aggy, way too loud. Me and Adham hold him up when we’re walking to Spoons, and he reels into me. Joe is walking just ahead of us.

Joe takes the world in his hands. He’s started political stuff by then. Opening adverts at the bus stop, replacing them with signs saying “No Cuts!”

At Spoons he pulls a picture right off the wall, near the bathroom. Gives it to Paul as his present. The picture’s a print of four old men, all dancing. Paul hugs the picture. Hugs Joe, too, who stands arms slack, half-smiling.

On the nightbus home, Paul falls asleep. We talk in whispers over him. Cuss him and make fun of him and love him.

Paul’s twenty-second we’ve left uni. Adham’s got himself a proper job. Designing. Me and Paul still working in the coffee shop. 

Paul’s twenty-third is when his mum is sick. He checks his phone over and over, goes home after two rounds. It’s quiet, crumpled, once he’s gone. We all leave, too. Going back to different flats for the first time. I get Morley’s on my own.

Paul’s twenty-fourth’s a big one, mad one. All of us dressed up in weird clothes.

Paul’s in a Palace kit; and me in a windbreaker, hair slicked back; and Adham in a suit and Joe in black, but with a cowboy hat.

Music playing in the bowling alley, and lights zinging, spinning out across the lanes.  Drink big beers and eat crap nachos. Do trick shots, and cheer, and barely talk. And want it like the first time, all of us do. Bigger, even. Try to get our other friends to join, but ask too late and they’re all busy. And us four boys, hold tightly to each other. Grabbing on each other. Getting rowdy, risky. And adrenaline. And blurring. Getting asked to leave.

Paul’s twenty-fifth, more chill. Two rounds then pub. Joe snogging Ethan from his work. Paul waggling about talking to everyone. And me and Adham slowly getting drunk. His familiar voice. His face. And some switch between us. Me and Adham snogging. His mouthtaste. His lips. Us both pulling away. “Lol” he says, and me barging my arm against him, rough. And “Lol” he says, again. And goes and gets up, gets us all a drink.

Paul’s Twenty-sixth. Joe brings his boyfriend, Gabriel, from Joe’s MA. Paul brings his girlfriend, Meg, who’s pretty quiet. Me and Adham both being nice. And asking them nice questions. And it’s fine. All good. But kind of stale.

Twenty seventh. Pandemic. Joe texting us. “Forget it fellas.” Replying slow.

Twenty eighth. Pandemic. Same again.

Twenty ninth, shy with the others. Adham in some random leather jacket, looking muscly; Paul’s mullet; Joe gruff-happy. Me, measuring our moods, our weird changes. Trying to work out where we’re all going, how we fit. Adham’s doing Help-to-Buy, and gymming, volunteering, and still gentle. Paul’s gardening, raving, watching Palace. Joe writing for Novara and New Statesman, and wearing glasses now as well. Me at the bookshop. Catch up. Hold each other, like before.

Thirtieth. All of us about to turn it. Feel it. April coming. Planning.

I cycle past the bowling alley in March. I still know it, satsuma-coloured brick, Virgin sign on the side, satellite discs on the roof. But it’s closed down. Doors shuttered. Hoarding going up around it.

“Fuck,” I say, and clang my foot against my pedal.

Text Joe when I get in. Tell him it’s shut.

“Of course it is,” he texts back, “probably flats.” I look at other places. Like Rowans in Finsbury Park which looks fine for bowling. But isn’t ours. Our proper place. Our stomping ground.

Joe knows his shit, though. From all the politics. The actions that he does. We leave it in his hands.

“We’ll get in one more time,” he writes in our old group chat. “Before the building goes,” he writes. “Before the city floods,” I type. “Sounds good,” Adham says, “I’m into it.” Paul sends a sunglasses emoji. “Meet opposite Iceland,” Joe writes. And we’re here.

We’re near TKMaxx, near the Lewisham Centre, beside the last stalls from the market. It’s sunset. We cross and walk past Traid, and round the back of Rolls & Rems. Keep pace, us four. We dash across the junction, not getting hit by the cars. Walk up a short bit, and we’re there.

The hoarding goes around the whole bowling alley. Says Balliard Homes all over it. Pictures of two women laughing in a sunlit square.

We walk quickly, round towards the back. Past the bus stop, past a Just Eat cyclist, up to Lockmead Road, and round the carpark. There’s hoarding back here, too, but no one about back here, and we get over easy. Adham and I give Joe the first leg-up, and then lift Paul over.

Then it’s just us two, and Adham smiles at me. Braces his hands.  I step my foot into his familiar palms, and he gives me a leg up. I clamber, buckle, right myself. And Adham swings his bag over, climbs up easy. Lands clean, strong.

“Leg day?” Paul says, and Adham half-smiles.

The air is cold in the old carpark.

Joe leads us to the stairs on the outside – the old fire exit.

“All the way up,” he says, “gonna get in through the roof.”

My blood shrills in me, What the hell? What the hell? It keeps going.

We climb, the sky gets bigger. More birds. Evening light shines off the tower blocks. I want to grab it all. Remember it again.

There’s a door up on the roof, a fire exit thing. Joey knows how to unlock it, “It’ll take a little while,” he says. Gets out little tools. We watch him for a bit, then pace about.

I walk over towards the edge, look down. A man wheels a careening trolley full of ricebags. A bus breaks sharply. Two children race each other through the darkening street.

And then I jolt, shaken sick. Two hands on me. And peril. And the view lurches and I’m going to fall, I’m sure. And angerfear flares through me.

Paul has grabbed me, shaken me. “Saved your life,” he’s saying. And I’m ok and I swear I’m going to. Punch him. Jesus. Want to slap him, break his grinning lips. 

“Fucks’ sake,” I say, my voice is proper angry, “Why’d you scare me?”

Paul steps back from me. I feel him looking at me. But I don’t look at him. I look at  Lewisham. At London and the moon just showing up. I look across, see Hilly Fields, Blythe Hill Field, Catford.  I imagine it all flooded, or all forest, or all tower. Imagine the four of us stranded here, together. It will happen, I think. It’s going to happen. Flooding. Fuck. And I calm my head down. Quiet my blood.

I’m scared to look at Paul’s face, but when I do, he’s smiling at me. Kind.

“Sorry man,” I say. “I’m sorry I freaked out.” He’s quiet.

“Paul,” I say. I still sound frightened. Shaky.

“You excited for the alley?” he’s asking.

“Yeah man,” I say.

A crowd of pigeons bats through the air above us, I hear their wings.

There’s a big clunk, then, and Joe is saying, “Happy Birthday, Paul.” We rush across the roof towards him, and Adham, and the door.

Through the door is a staircase. A kind of dead-air anonymous place, with circular yellow lights humming on the walls.

“Still got electric,” Joe says.

“Let’s gooo,” I say. And then we’re in. And I run downward, limbs lashing out, thrashing down. Down towards the bowling. It’s lit up all the way as we run down, our footsteps clanging echoes. Paul leaps and jumps, takes the stairs four at a time.

At the bottom is a damp, abandoned smell. We shove the heavy doors, excitable. And open, and we’re in the bowling foyer. The lanes ahead of us, and the toilets and bar on our left. It is half-dark, half-lit. Stark. We run, a squad, stampede across the carpets. Run towards the smooth wood, the long aisles.

“Let’s bowl,” says Paul. We hold pretend spheres in our hands. Chop our arms through the air, watch the aisles, shout Strike!

Adham slopes off slow, towards the toilets. Smart shirt, big bag, strong. Walking away.

And the air crumples, heavies, dulls.

I picture new floors here, new flats. All of it leaving. Changing. Flooding all away.

And then Joe is ruffling me. “Cheer the fuck up, puppydog,” he’s saying. Paul’s cheesy smile right in my face.

I look down at my hands as they bowl air. Repeat the action.

And then movement. Rushing. Running. I flinch, for a moment. The fear, the anger, come back, caterwhauling through me. What the hell is this? Think “Cops.” Then “Ghosts.”

But there is something familiar in it. Something good. In that run.

In his clattering footsteps. And the air glints up again. His rush. Echoes in the empty, cooldamp air. Adham running to us. Drinks. Tray in his hand.

“It’s the same!” he’s shouting, “Again!”

He gets close. Then, with purpose on his face, he trips. The drinks plop. They are cans, this time. He has brought them with him for this moment. And the tray. And he trips, wobbles, rights himself. The cans fizz, damp, spray across his socks, the floor, his trousers. The rest of us are dry. And we’re all laughing. And have tried, that’s true. We’ve tried to all get back to it. Hold on to it. Jump up. To the whoop, the group of it. The four of us. The city. We’ve managed some. And some, we’ve kind of failed.

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