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I hadn’t seen David in five years and I had done my level best not to think about him in all that time. We had been close friends at university. It was with some trepidation that I accepted his invitation to reunite at a pub in Richmond. He had returned from some far-flung place, India or maybe Thailand, and as I changed at Clapham Junction station, dragged along by the current of polo shirts and tweed, I tried to formulate a plan for dealing with the situation. How I would act, what I would say, if I would be aloof or effusive, direct or circumlocutory.
David was a failed musician. At least, that’s what he liked to call himself. It added a certain romance to his image, he said, a certain tragic sadness to the days spent in Canary Wharf in a suit and a tie. His band, with some short punchy name I can’t remember now, perhaps simply Scousers, obtained representation and a record deal when he was just seventeen. He agreed with his parents to spend a year trying to make it with the band before going to university. They had a photoshoot in NME shortly before the band fell apart like wet tissue paper. David went to university and I believe the other members of the band are still pottering about in music with little success.
David had a record player and we’d play the Rolling Stones and David Bowie and get fucked-up enough that we felt they were in the room with us, that they were in our spirit somehow, that we carried the torch even though all we did was drink and listen to music.
When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was the gleam of the sun on the river. I hadn’t brought sunglasses and I was forced to raise a hand above my eyes. Men in linen suits smoked rolled up cigarettes by the banks of the river and women in floral summer dresses laughed and watched the harlequin boats drift along the water. Pale smoke roiled off these colourful barges and filled the air with the scent of barbequed meat.
David stood with some old friends of ours, old friends of his to be more accurate, drinking a lager from a plastic cup. His dark hair now fell down to his shoulders but his eyes were still stormy and blue, the tempestuous sea you take one final look at before hurling yourself down onto the rocks below. He smiled when he spotted me ambling over.
“How have you been?” I exclaimed with false enthusiasm.
He wore a dark denim jacket over a plain white t-shirt and his stubble was fashionably long and groomed. I greeted each of the other three in turn – Antoine, Jake and Peter – and then hurried inside to get a drink. The pub looked like a converted old manor, with polished mahogany flooring and a high arched celling. The bar was in the centre of the pub and the girl pouring pints was beautiful in the way only someone removed from you by a counter can be. Her eyes were almond shaped and her skin was like an ivory piano key that plays a haunting note. As I waited in the queue, I thought about the life we could share together. We could wander the quaint and labyrinthine streets of Richmond, basking in its sterilised and anachronistic atmosphere. We could live in the kind of England Americans pictured – a place with a high average age and minimal drug addiction. I could visit the pub with a book, something voluminous and impressive, and she could smile over at me while she worked and kiss me on the forehead when she brought me a coffee. I would be the envy of the middle-class drunkards who were lining up for a pint and a smile.
When I got to the front of the queue, I ordered my orange juice and asked her if she’d worked there long. She didn’t reply.
“How you been you mad bastard!” Peter yelled when I walked back out. They all glanced awkwardly at the orange juice and then away, as if I was standing there with my fly open.
“Okay,” I responded awkwardly.
I scanned David’s face for any sign of discomfort.
David had taken me in when I was forced out of my father’s house. I had stolen away in the middle of the night with a sports bag stuffed with wrinkled clothes to avoid being sent to a rehab clinic. We spent months drinking together. Most nights, after David collapsed into bed, sometimes with his girlfriend and sometimes alone, I would pull a chair up to the window and chain-smoke cigarettes. The blue smoke would curl up in the pale moonlight and the ash would overflow and spill out onto the beer-stained yellow carpet. I would gaze up at the stars and sink into my dreams like honey.
After three months I repeated the same journey in reverse. In the middle of the night, I stole away with the same sports bag stuffed with wrinkled clothes and returned to my father’s house. That was the last time I saw David.
At five o’clock the table was ready, and we were led upstairs to an ornately decorated dining room with a long table at the far end. The room smelt of varnish and the cream walls were adorned with portraits of patrician men. A small wooden balcony jutted out over the smoking area. It looked like the sort of balcony a minor landowner would stand on and feel terror as the night was pierced by the flickering torches of irate peasants come to take their vengeance on him. Him and his infamous parsimony. Him and his liberal and licentious use of droit du seigneur.
I took a seat at our absurdly long table and found myself trapped in a conversation with Jake, a situation I’d done well to avoid up to that point. Jake was small, with a perfectly coiffed pompadour and hairless, pore-less skin. He wore necklaces and rings and peppered his words with outdated slang, his intonation oddly drawling, as if he had spent time in a skatepark or a surf camp although I knew for a fact he had grown up in Tonbridge Wells.
“The Yanks just couldn’t get it done bro,” Jake said with a triumphant smirk. “So the Brits are going over there to show them how it’s done.”
Jake’s friend, Charlie, was being moved to a New York law firm. Jake talked about his achievements as if they were his own, as if through association with these kind of high-flying legal whizz kids, his own stock had risen concordantly. It reminded me of Mr Collins fawning over Lady De Burgh. I remembered Charlie from university: tall, angular, wearing loose fitting clothing and fake, clear-lensed, horn-rimmed glasses. I thought he was a prick then and success in the business world was unlikely to have tempered his ego.
“So we’re all gonna go to Shoreditch and give him a proper fucking groovy send-off if you know what I mean?”
I was saved by the arrival of David’s friends from Liverpool. We could hear them stomping up the stairs like the vanguard of a revolutionary force, bursting into the ornate upper room of the pub, ready to pull the somnambulant aristocracy out into the street and hang them. There were three of them. At the front was Nobby, who I had met when I’d stayed with David but who didn’t recognise me. This was likely because he had spent that meeting hidden underneath a table attempting to escape the inescapable ketamine-induced terror that ultimately flipped over the table and pinned him to the floor. He was with two blonde men who I didn’t recognise. David rose to meet them with the same broad grin with which he had greeted me.
I walked downstairs to get another orange juice. The raven-haired bartender was still pouring drinks, still beautiful, still drawing the admiration of every man in the rectangle-shaped bar like a siren calling sad, drunk sailors to the rocks.
Some nights, from my spot on the couch or the window, I could hear David and his girlfriend attempt sex through the walls. Sometimes this was performed with the sombre duty of a life-long company man. The springs strained, gathered speed, and reached climax with a sharp exhale of breath followed by a stony, judgmental silence. Those nights, I felt the dull ache of loneliness in my breast and wanted to break down the door with an axe or cry or both. More often, the springs would remain as silent as the grave, as silent as the terrified witness to a macabre crime, and raised voices would follow (especially if Jessica had been drinking), accusing David of impotence, telling David with a layman’s self-assurance that drugs had eroded first his mind and now his dick. That all he really wanted was to fuck me and that’s why he couldn’t get hard for her. Those nights, I missed the loneliness. Jessica was blonde, with narrow hips and large breasts and I thought I loved her for some reason.
When I returned from another failed attempt at talking to the bartender, David was sat with his friends from Liverpool. I sat beside him but he didn’t turn towards me. The briefest of silences followed my arrival before Nobby, apropos of nothing, launched into a story.
“You wouldn’t believe what Kevin did to me the other day David. I’ve never been betrayed like this. Not once in my life.” He spoke breathlessly, intently, like he was warning somebody of an impending disaster. “I went on a date with a girl I liked. Things were going well, really well. So I brought her back to the flat. We were sat in the living room, drinking beers, and Kevin came in and wouldn’t fucking piss off. I was trying to give him the eyes like ‘piss off’, and he just ignored me. So, I go to the bathroom, I come back and he’s taken her to his room. They have sex all night. I can hear them through the bloody walls, moaning.”
An awkward silence followed Nobby’s story. I felt like somebody should have reached out and patted him on the back, put an arm around him and held him close, but nobody did. Nobby wore a velvet green jacket over a protruding stomach and had straw-like receding hair. An unpleasant, somehow lewd, moustache resided under his roman nose. His eyes were slightly manic, a watery blue, that were permanently stretched wide in terror like he was seeing something nobody else could, something that was coming just for him.
I wondered why he would freely tell a story so embarrassing. The conversation fled from his tale and I remained in silence. By now, everybody was drunk and the volume of the group rose accordingly, drawing the ire of the other members of the room – old couples and family groups out on a Saturday night to enjoy an expensive pub dinner of ox cheek or grilled salmon and watch the river drift by. Everybody was getting further and further away from me as they drank, or rather the space between us expanded. Nobby grabbed David in a friendly but forceful headlock, like a child clutching a kitten too tight to its chest, and declared loudly that David was his best friend, that they were the only really close friends, that everybody else there could never understand how close they were.
“And he’s so good looking!” Nobby continued, not letting David out of his grasp. “In Asia, all the girls would want to get with him but he, he’s such a good man, he would always try to introduce them to me. They’d take one look at me and… and… and they’d go straight back to David. It was the best time of my life. To be travelling with your best friend like that.”
David managed to wriggle out at that point, a kind of pained grin etched onto his face, and sat beside me in the corner of the room.
“You’re hating this,” he said quietly, finally speaking to me.
“I’m just tired,” I replied. The truth was, there was something upsetting about Nobby. He was like a character from a Turgenev novel, exigent for humiliation or for a kind of twisted validation of the humiliation he felt he deserved. He offered up reasons for us to pity or loathe him – the many times girls had rejected him, the superiority of his friends, his physical and spiritual ugliness. Yet there was something else in all of this negative posturing, the need to consume another person with affection, to debase yourself in front of them and thus substitute impossible love for available pity.
“Listen,” David said cautiously, as if he was approaching a gazelle in a forest. “We really should talk about what happened back then.”
Nobby came rushing over before I had the chance to respond.
“The thing is Davey,” Nobby began, eyes wide and terrified, taking deep breaths in between flurries of confessional words. “I think I have a coke problem. I can’t stop doing it. I’m doing it every time I drink. And I’m drinking every single day. I’ve had to go and see a therapist about it. Just to try and stop.”
“That’s okay Nobby,” David replied calmly, with compassionate sensitivity. “I’ve seen a therapist.” David gestured towards me. “You have too, haven’t you?”
Nobby’s eyes alighted on mine like he was seeing me for the first time. I attempted a conciliatory smile and nodded my head. Nobby took a moment, and then his craggy features darkened.
“You may think it’s fucking funny. But I fucking don’t. It’s a serious problem you posh prick!” His voice slowly raised in decibels until he was screaming. He rose to his feet and lunged awkwardly towards me but David held him back. His howling invectives, as well as the glares of his friends, followed me as I walked downstairs and outside.
Some mornings, if David had to go to work early, I would take Jessica out for breakfast at a local pancake house. We tacitly agreed not to tell David about this. I think she liked me. These breakfasts became more common, until eventually, Jessica eschewed seeing David altogether, and we would meet in the evenings. As David wept and drank and pulled on his hair wondering whether this distance could be surmounted, I crept out to see her. We talked about movies we’d seen, books we’d read, the people we’d fucked. As she drank a white wine at a local pub she would sit on my lap, ruffle my hair, kiss my cheeks, infect me with the sexual frustration that swept around that dingy Brixton apartment like the plague.
There were no stars or moon in the sky, a dark and heavy blanket hung over the world and no light glistened off the rushing river now, just a dark mass coursing east. The smell of cigarette smoke and awkward, soon to be regretted confessions filled the little granite garden.
Peter soon came out to join me, his schoolboy’s grin visible even in the murky darkness. “What was all that about then?” he asked.
“Nothing, he’s just drunk. I think he misunderstood,” I replied. Peter was disappointed but accepted my reticence. We talked about football, about work, about girls.
Soon, everybody else was herded outside as the dining room was closed and swept clean. Nobby seemed to have already forgotten his outburst and was hovering on the edge of a group who all had their backs turned to him. The beautiful waitress came outside to ask one of David’s blonde friends for his number. He smiled a white smile, as if this happened all the time, and politely replied that he had a girlfriend. The beautiful waitress flushed red and rushed back inside. I hated the blonde friend. My dreams of a nice Richmond girl, of reading in the corner of a seignorial pub, had been shattered permanently.
I walked back inside, glancing surreptitiously at the blushing waitress, and down the stairs into the toilet. David was already there, washing his hands and adjusting his pre-Raphaelite hair in the mirror. We were alone for the first time that evening, for the first time in five years. I just nodded at him and rushed to the urinal. I could sense David behind me at the mirror, the tap no longer on, the sharp, acidic scent of piss and urinal cakes filling my nostrils. I picked a point on the white tile pattern in front of me, a small crack in the otherwise pristine room, and stared at it with my jaw clenched.
“You just…” David began uncertainly. “You just left. That night, you just left. And we never talked.”
I took a deep breath. “There was nothing to talk about.”
“I would have liked to talk about it. Did you ever… I have to know if you…”
A refined looking older man, in a grey suit with dress shoes entered the bathroom. His piss echoed off the porcelain. He whistled to himself. I think he was too drunk to pick up on the tension in the room. I continued to stare at the crack. Behind me, David adjusted his hair in the mirror until the man left again.
“Did you ever…” David started again. “Did you ever… with another man I mean?”
“No,” I said, through gritted teeth. “Just you.”
“Do you ever… do you ever, I don’t know, think about it?”
“No.” I replied firmly, with an anger that surprised me. “Never. It didn’t mean anything. We were just drunk that’s all. Drunk and all fucked up. Fucked up by that girl, by Jessica. That’s all. That’s all that happened.”
I continued to gaze at the crack in the white tile until I heard the door whine forlornly to a close. I washed my hands brusquely at the tap and caught sight of myself in the smudged mirror. My pale face, the lines around my eyes, the hairline creeping back, the body that had never managed to regain the muscle mass that years of cocaine and booze had eroded. I grabbed a paper towel to mop up the few errant tears that had escaped from the corner of my eye like jump-suited prisoners streaking across the moorlands, floodlights following their mad dash for freedom. Coming here had been a mistake.
Leaving the shelter of the bathroom, the lights and bustle of the pub seemed more ferocious, more primordial, like lying on the canopy of a forest floor with howler monkeys grunting above you. The waitress seemed to have recovered from her loss, smiling at the customers once more, the red-hot centre of all of the lust in the universe. When I came down the stone steps to the granite garden, the group were taking photos, huddled together like a victorious football team, trying to force a sense of nostalgia that wasn’t really present, at least not for me. I didn’t meet David’s eye. I thought about that photo, me with tears in my eyes at the back, David with a brave and sad smile in the centre. I hoped never to see it.
It was closing time and Jake invited us all to the leaving drinks in Shoreditch, a kind of second go at the American War of Independence, this time fought out in mid-level positions at international law firms. I turned down the offer but decided to wait for their taxi to arrive. Maybe hoping David would talk to me again, ask me again, get a different answer. When the taxi arrived, everybody bundled in and there wasn’t a seat for Nobby.
“What are we gonna do guys?” he asked, his voice creeping towards hysteria. “Guys?”
Nobody replied. Nobby had finally forced the rejection his psyche craved. The taxi rolled away and he stood there cursing at them from the street before breaking down in histrionic sobs and roars. I crept past him with ease, lost as he was in the desolation of solitude. I walked up the isolated road and through the alleyways towards the train station. The heavy blanket of darkness still smothered the world but the city began to fight back, punching firmament holes in the darkness as I delved deeper into the town centre.