My old friend cupped his hand around the lighter’s flame and inhaled sharply on the cigarette. The silhouette it cast cut across the shadows of the early evening. Down amongst the closed up market stalls, the scent of smouldering tobacco intermixed with the remains of vegetables strewn to the night.
‘Pint of watery, mass produced piss for you,’ I said handing him a pint of Fosters, ‘pint of something cringe worthily named, from an obscure corner of Yorkshire for me.’
We chinked glasses and took a long draught each.
‘Uh-huh,’ I nodded. ‘You all packed up? Ready to fly away to the other side of the world?’
‘Shipping company comes round Wednesday morning. Flight boards later in the day.’
I took another sip. ‘Excited?’
‘You know, it’s weird? I’m not nervous, but… When it was further away it was just… I dunno, something intangible. But this close… I can taste it. I just can’t wait to see her again.’
‘I didn’t need to know that you had the horn.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘That’s not what I meant. It’s just… It’s just that I love her.’
‘Yeah,’ I chinked his glass again. ‘I know what you mean.’
A long time before, I sat in a window seat in a Devonshire cottage the exterior walls of which were stained pink. I was surrounded by cushions of lace in a style now lost. Aged eight or nine or ten, when the rain tumbled down, whilst my Mum prepared our holiday teas I would sit in that seat and read old copies of the Funday Times archived in the cupboards. In particular, I remember reading again and again the two panel gags of ‘Love is…’. The sexless, naked caricatures of man and woman bumbling through life with regular explosions of fluffy red hearts around their heads for the simplest things, the things that seemed so natural to a relationship – this was the time, I think, that I first fell in love with the idea of being in love.
‘I know it appears we have nothing in common,’ the curly blonde told me over a sun soaked beer down by the canals, ‘but he makes me feel secure. He makes everything seem okay and I just… I just love him. That’s all there is to it sometimes. You can’t always rationalise emotions.’
‘I think I love you,’ I told my first girlfriend aged sixteen far too soon and for all the wrong reasons.
‘No you don’t.’ she broke our cumbersome embrace, her lips still glistening slightly with saliva. ‘How could you? You don’t even know me.’
‘I’ve always had a soft spot for you, David,’ whispered the shortly cropped dark-haired girl, into my ear.
‘Want her, have her,’ growled Alex Turner in my head, rather charmlessly.
‘I just don’t fancy anyone at the moment,’ lamented the brunette on a rooftop bar as threatening clouds sidled over the horizon. ‘It’s like I’ve been neutered.’
‘I don’t know how to talk to girls,’ I moaned to whoever was in the bar at the time. ‘I’ve never had to do it before. Or not in that way, at least.’
I sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom last weekend, surrounded by stacks of boxes. Each was full of packaged up books and a life that seemed initially simply on hold and then, perhaps, discarded. Forgotten about. More or less.
I peered into the draw of a bedside cabinet that never used to be there and took out a manila card envelope.
Inside I found reams of scrappy, yellowing paper, frayed at the edges. Each sheet was marked either with the type of a dot matrix printer, or the physical metallic indent of a typewriter, or my own illegible scrawl.
The stories I wrote as a teenager. Stories and scenes and snippets of plot ideas.
Precocious and pretentious trying to tell everyone about life, before I’d even had one of my own. Poorly executed, trite ideas. Overwrought, heart wincing cries of deluded, failing, youth exhilarating romance. Again and again, the same variations on a theme.
‘How’s the writing going?’ my old friend asked.
‘Not bad.’ I took a sip on the fresh pint and grin. ‘I’ve pretty much finished the
‘Of the new novel?’
‘So,’ he paused: ‘Are you finally going to tell me what it’s about?’
I was reminded of a Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros song:
“So anyway, I told him I was in a band, he said oh yeah? Oh yeah? What’s your music like? I said it’s errm… Errmm… Well it’s kinda like… You know…It’s got a bit of… Um… y’know?”
How could I sum it up before I’d got it clear on paper? It’s about punk versus motown, about the corruption of authority, it’s about the frustration of believing you know the answers and no-one listening (and the pit-falls when it transpires you don’t), it’s about the anarchy of tomorrow and the God in the machine and drinking and smoking too much and the spatial lapses in your own thoughts.
‘Meh,’ I conceded, ‘it’s a love story. Aren’t they all, in the end?’
Late at night I rummaged through the cupboards in my flat for something useless. It was dark outside, the windows were wide open as a hot breeze drifted past, the lights were down low and Laura Marling sang sweetly in the background. As I looked, I took sips from a glass of iced water with a tot or two of whisky in it.
I pulled out from under the bed my leather briefcase. A birthday present from my ex a few years back that I no longer used and couldn’t remember why not. Inside, it was stuffed with random sheets of paper, damaged fragments scooped up in the frantic evacuation of my last home. I finally sorted through them, binning anything pointless, until I came to a homemade birthday card.
The front showed a photomontage of castle battlements torn asunder into ruins by the years. In the centre I perched atop a Croatian tower, uninhabited for centuries. I was fooling about on the precipice with no regard for safety, just the funny photo.
Underneath it read ‘You’re the King of my Castle.’ Inside it said ‘with all my love,’ and runs of little ‘x’s. I counted them.
‘These are the ghosts that broke my heart before I met you,’ Laura sang.
I sat and looked at the card. I wanted to throw it away. I wanted to keep it.
After a minute or so I took a sip of watery scotch and slid the card into the back of a draw, buried underneath utility bills and cheque stubs.
Four months after she’d written it, she was gone.
‘The thing is,’ dark hair said and sat back to make her point: ‘I won’t be hurt again. I can’t allow that.’
‘I’m not the hurting kind,’ I lied before I could even stop myself – a lie because that sort of decision wasn’t, strictly speaking, mine to make.
‘You shouldn’t have hope,’ she interrupted me in the lonesome dark of winter and slowly turned away.
The thing was, without hope all that was left was despair and a shredding emptiness of fear.
But in the end that became anger.
And eventually, quite unexpectedly, sometime around Easter, it was gone leaving a serene calm, a quiet elation of freedom from self-pity, a renewed belief in… well, everything.
‘You know,’ said the brunette, ‘the cynical grouchy routine doesn’t fool anyone.’
‘If you could read my mind love,’ the dying voice of Johnny Cash croaked, ‘what a tale my thoughts would tell.’
‘You could always stay the night,’ curly blonde said with a smile when it was far too late and we had drunk far too much wine.
‘I think that would be a really, really bad idea, don’t you?’ I said although I really didn’t believe myself.
My old friend tossed the butt of his last cigarette across the empty market. The final embers bounced across the concrete and disappeared into the gloom.
‘I’m done,’ he said.
We walked away from the pub and back towards the light of night. At the top of the stairs to the underground, we took an awkward masculine embrace and began to go our separate ways for the final time.
Suddenly, I jumped up onto the railings caging the steps down to the Northern Line.
‘Hey,’ I shouted and he looked up. ‘It’ll be amazing, you’ll see.’
‘Of course it will,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s only life.’