It was damp that night, on the north side of Oxford Street. Oxford Street was like it always is – an overlit drain of humanity, clogged with lotus eaters, seeping into Hyde Park. But as we turned into a side street, just by the back entrance of Debenhams, the air seemed to change.
It was partly the smoke from the store security guard’s vape, which shimmered from him like a soul intent on divorce, partly something else. The night was quieter, heavier, wetter. With Oxford Street behind us and empty roads ahead of us, things seemed – charged. It was an atmosphere where things happened, in the silence where the spluttering roar of buses and the ringtones of shoppers faded.
It seemed unlikely, however, that anything would happen to me and Jack in particular. It was Halloween, and the night was as flat as our friendship.
Friendship was perhaps too strong a word for an alliance forged by fear and the flaking memories of a Fresher’s week where it seemed like we might have had something in common. We had met in the first week of university, got drunk in the second, and had said everything we ever needed to say to each other in the third. A year on, it was only our respective failure to make any other friends that kept us together – locked into a cycle of rounds which, with each awkward evening, seemed to draw us closer to the black hole of having finally, indubitably, run out of small talk.
Really, Jack should have done better. He had an impressive mane of blond hair, a pimple-free face, and not a single creepy bone in his almost muscular body.
He had every reason to be swept up into a cool crowd, but it just hadn’t happened. It was as if some essential, marrow-deep dullness had marked him out, branded him. Sometimes, when we were three pints deep and our eyes flashed secrets, I thought he knew it. Then he would insist on another drink, and truth would be drowned out, suffocated under an anecdote about the Pirate Party from that first, potential-heavy Fresher’s week, retold for the eight billionth time. ‘Do you remember when Kate vomited on that pigeon?’ Yes, I do. And I know you cry yourself to sleep sometimes.
Still, I was worried that things were changing. He had finally met a girl who shared his inexplicable interest in Taiwanese films. Typical fucking Jack that; niche, but not nerdy enough to qualify for membership of any geeky circles and the warm, semeny companionship they offered. And yet now some girl, just as half-kooked as him, was interested. The niche film thing looked more charming on her than it did on him. He was a bore – she was alternative, and charming with it.
And she had friends. Sort of good-looking, sort of confident friends. Confident enough to make passable conversation with me, at the one party of theirs he had taken me along to. I hadn’t disgraced myself, but I hadn’t shone either. One weak joke about the song ‘Man-Eater’ being written about the head librarian at the Monmouth Road campus, barely audible above the song itself and granted one unsure communal titter in response, had been the highpoint of my interactions that night.
And now, here we were on Halloween night, dressed as unconvincing vampires, and heading north from Oxford Street.
The girl had told Jack that she and her friends might be at a pub round here, to listen to some live music. I looked across at him as he stepped over vomit from an early-bird reveller. He was clearly weighing up the pros of having me as a back-up in case she didn’t show against the cons of having me drag things down if she did.
I felt a little desperate.
It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t speak to him about badly dubbed martial arts movies. Why couldn’t he like films from across Asia? At least then I could speculate wildly about how political differences between neighbours were reflected in different kicking styles. I could even talk about the War. But no, it was just fucking Taiwan. Even I didn’t know much about Taiwanese history. Again and again, in the silent corner of parties, and in the parts of pubs furthest away from the speakers, he would try and talk to me about his favourite directors, and what the choreography meant to him. I would nod, and talk about the beer we were drinking.
And now he was striding towards a meaningful connection, with a cape made from a bin bag furling out behind him.
Winking onto the street in front of us was the Green Man. Every building around it was dark and empty, but from the pub light shone. Sandwiched in between two dark-glassed eighties office blocks, it sang a siren’s song. The black-painted timbers cladding the front of the building, the sign swaying in the night, the lead-framed windows – all spoke of comfort and easy companionship. It was a weekend, in a road of Monday mornings.
The inside of the pub smelt of nachos and cleaning fluid. It wasn’t buzzing. Three girls sat in silence in one corner, waiting stubbornly for one of the party to break and get another round in. Next to them two lost tourists, strays blown up from the glaring lights of Oxford Street, were responsible for the nachos. They were picking at them idly as they watched a bored-looking band set up on stage. As we approached the bar the barman looked up from his phone and scowled.
I knew what was coming.
Jack was painfully good at getting the first round in. It was a sign of his essential decency – predictable, pleasant. Predictable.
‘So – what will it be?’
‘I’ll have a pint of Fullers, thanks.’
He grinned. ‘The usual then.’
Jack got himself a pint of Fosters. He always drank lager, no matter how many times I laid into him about it. The one consolation was that he drank it as fast as I drank my real ale. We kept up with each other in that respect at least.
We sat down. Jack checked his phone. I watched the cheese glisten on the nachos on the next table. Jack looked up – no text from her, then – and gave the festering stock pot of conversation a tentative stir.
‘So, how is the course, then?’
‘Fine thanks. Pretty light, really. Keep on thinking I should be doing more.’
Jack gave me a concerned look. He liked hard work. I think it comforted him. ‘Really. How many contact hours are you getting a week, then?’
‘Six at the moment. And four of those are over Skype. I told you that one of my professors is based in Edinburgh, didn’t I? Apparently, he refuses to move down. Still, he is pretty much the leading authority on the Highland Clearances, so I can’t complain too much.’
The Highland Clearances stumped Jack. He said something that sounded like ‘swoosh’, shrugged sympathetically and checked his phone again.
‘What’s the latest on your housemate, then?’
‘Which one?’ He answered, still looking at his phone.
‘You know – the nympho. Has she been keeping you up again?’
Not even a titter in response. Jack’s housemate had been giving us tingles of vicarious satisfaction for months now. She had, as my father would say with a leer, appetites – and Jack would recall wide-eyed how many different men had been brought home over the course of the week. The ritual of me asking how much she had been keeping Jack up made us laugh (and sad) every time.
Not so now.
‘Oh – her. Nothing much to report.’
‘Well, I think she has a boyfriend now.’
I leant forward with excitement. ‘What’s he like? Built like an ox, lives off steak, buffalo milk and Viagra?’
‘He seemed ok. Only met him once. She mainly goes to his.’
Dry as a bone. Silence hovered over the table, like a hungry vulture.
It was time for the beer monologue. I took a long sip and smacked my lips.
‘You see the thing with Fullers Ripper Rat is that they triple hop it, they dip fresh hops into the vat three times. It makes it bitter, but fresh tasting. Apparently, it all started when the Met Police was founded – they confiscated a whole cart of hops from some Fagin-like crook, and didn’t know what to do with it. Some bright spark thought they might as well use it up and triple hopping was born. It’s like kicking the whole of Victorian London onto your taste buds – fog, horse sweat and lost innocence, all in one gulp.’
Jack made another ‘swoosh’ noise.
Time for another round. Let the beer do the talking for us. ‘Same again, mate?’
‘Yeah.’ He glanced at his phone again, and desperation flashed across his face. She wasn’t coming.
I downed a quarter of my pint at the bar. Get drunk. Fast. A portion spilled from the corner of my open mouth and wetted my chin. The sudden thought splashed me with it – I was being a selfish sod. Time to support my friend in his hour of abandonment. Like Gordon in Khartoum, he was waiting for a relief that would never come. I ordered two gin chasers, making the barman scowl yet more fiercely.
I tottered back.
‘Something special for you. It is Halloween after all.’
Jack laughed, for the first time in an hour. I did like his smile.
‘Yeah – what the hell. Let’s have ourselves a Halloween horror.’
We chinked glasses.
‘Remember the eye contact – seven years of bad sex…’
‘Better than seven months of none,’ I answered.
Jack laughed. ‘Has it really been that long? It was that goth girl, wasn’t it?’
He knew it was. We had spent a whole week, nine months ago, talking about it. The one shining night when a girl had taken my eyes-to-the-ground shuffling at an eighties club night as evidence of a spiritual communion with the Smiths, rather than proof of my virginity. She had been taken in, and had taken it.
Then slowly stopped replying to my texts. As I got more saccharine, she got brisker. A ‘You’re beautiful’ had provoked a ‘You’re sweet’, ‘I miss you’ was answered by a smiley. ‘Fancy another drink?’ Nothing.
I had now said her name to Jack about 8,000 times more than she had ever spoken mine.
Still, it felt good to be talking about her again. Now with gin burning down my throat, speaking about a conquest of mine, even if she was the only conquest, seemed manly. Virile.
‘Christ, that was an amazing night. She was like a tiger – a tiger with lots of eye shadow on.’
‘Sounds like she was a wild one,’ Jack said.
‘Let’s go wild tonight. Get battered, go crazy.’
Jack threw back his head in answer and howled at the moon, through the beer-stained ceiling.
As one, we looked at the table of girls. One looked back at us, then started laughing. They all started laughing.
Jack decided that he liked the blonde one. I said I wasn’t picky.
We chinked our glasses, trying to look like characters from a Bond film. Wisps of desire drifted up from each of us. Male lust smells like lemons – waxy, sour. Goes well with gin.
‘Do you think we should offer to buy them a drink?’
We were spared our dilemma by the band starting up. They knew their business. Nothing self-penned or fancy. It was Halloween, they were in a chain pub and they were all over 40. They aspired not to art, but to a couple of phone numbers to take back in triumph to the spare bedrooms of their still-married brothers. The first chords of Monster Mash filled the room.
The girls, as one, got up to dance around their handbags.
Jack started up. Was he actually going to dance with them? This was incredible. Heart racing, legs shaking and ready to spasm into dance, I got up to join.
As I drew myself upright my eyes met those of someone heading towards the table, a crowd in tow. It was Jack’s girl. The great other had come.
I stood around mutely as Jack hugged her. As the band switched to the theme song of some TV show I had never seen, I felt my energy sink to and through the floor, to drown itself in the beer cellar.
Over the next five minutes I said hello once, and bolstered a communal laugh twice. Jack looked happy, his eyes shining next to the girl’s. I thought her name might be Emma, but wasn’t sure. I decided not to risk it. The aftertaste of the gin was making me feel sick. No-one was talking to me. I got up to go to the toilets. I wanted to silently scream into a mirror. Another wasted night, for a waste of a man.
Looking back, I was pretty drunk by this stage. I usually have to be, to get to that dark place. As I blundered to the gents I collided with a solid object. Something wet coursed down between me and it. It was a guy. Shit.
I closed my eyes for a millisecond and braced myself for a cockney, all outraged pride and drawn-back fists. I tightened my stomach to receive a blow. I opened my eyes.
A slight man, wearing a coat of green velvet, so long that it dragged on the floor. The coat was open to reveal the tightest of black jeans and a flowing silk shirt, its whiteness now yellow with the beer I had spilt. A small, agile face peered out from behind glasses. And smiled at me.
I was pathetically grateful for the smile. It felt a long time since Jack’s smile of ten minutes before.
‘So sorry. Can I get you another drink?’
‘I never say no to a drink.’ The stranger’s voice was firm and deep. It had gravitas. I wondered if he was older than he looked.
I was flustered, and looked at him dumbly for a few seconds. He came to the rescue.
‘A pint of Fullers would be great – the Ripper Rat, please.’
The barman gave us a hard stare as I ordered. I handed over the drink to the damp stranger and gestured towards my table – my seat was already gone, taken up by a newcomer to the group. I could only see the blond top of Jack’s mop. The circle was closed.
‘Tell you what, let’s grab a window table.’
We threaded our way across the now empty dance floor. The band was playing Thriller as we sat down.
I wanted to impress, so I asked the first question. ‘So, what brings you here, to listen to this shit?’
‘I popped in on the way back from Mass. I thought a beer might be needed, in light of it being All Hallows’ Eve.’
He raised his glass to the light. ‘From the sweat of man and the love of God came beer. Good protection from evil spirits.’
He looked bemused. Manners returned to my slightly fuddled mind.
‘I am sorry, I haven’t even asked your name…’
I managed to resist laughing again.
‘Good to meet you, Florian.’
From there on in, he took control of the conversation, flinging question after question at me.
Deep questions. Not the usual Jack ping pong of bored-question, cursory-answer, but great rolling volleys of conversation probing my defences, striking deeper into me each time. He asked me about my course. Then he asked what drew me to the subject. Then he asked if my course lived up to expectations. We talked a lot about history. He asked me what I would study if I could study anything. He seemed impressed by my answer (1960s social attitudes, specifically the link between burgeoning sexual freedom and the shrinking British Empire).
Then Florian asked if I wanted to dance.
He was on his feet before I could answer, twirling onto the still empty floor. The band was onto the Smiths now, playing a gruff version of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Florian’s arms flailed above his head, and his coat flailed around his legs. He started leaping when the chorus set in, springing from one corner of the floor to another, tossing his head back in triumph every time he landed. His hips jerked obscenely.
I looked round the room. Everyone in the pub was staring at him. I looked at him. I saw the crowd round Jack, tittering. The band switched to Adam Ant’s ‘Prince Charming’.
‘Don’t you ever…’
I joined him. Stomach clenched, chin out, I strutted up to him. He leaped to the left. I leaped in his wake. He raised his hands to the air. I raised mine yet higher.
‘Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.’
We stamped, we swayed, we jumped. Repeatedly. Once, he caught my hands and twirled me around. The band had found their flow now, the singer straining his vocals with every word, the guitar player vibrating the whole room with each chord.
It carried on like that for quite some time. The songs changed, we raided the bar for refreshments, we kept dancing.
We danced through Abba, through Fleetwood Mac, and through three further renditions of Monster Mash. We danced through Jack leaving, trying to say goodbye to me, and me giving him an airy wave. We danced through girls trying to dance with us, we danced into a safer corner. We danced till the band, with an encore of ‘Prince Charming’, the revelation that their name was Bognor is Burning and an exhortation to buy their CDs, packed up and left.
We decided on one last drink. The barman took great pleasure in telling us that it was last orders. So we ordered cocktails. With a scowl so sharp that it could slit Christmas he handed us two Negronis. Florian ordered a glass of water.
He solemnly shook his head and placed the water between us. He shook his long hair out of his glasses, and raised his cocktail over the glass.
‘To the King over the water – may he one day return.’
‘Say it after me.’
‘Um, ok. To the water King, King over water – may he return. One day.’
He chinked my glass.
Things got yet more confusing after that. I remember the Negroni burning all the way down, and the bell at the bar ringing twice. I remember slipping on the floor on the way out, and Florian catching me. And then standing in light rain and him saying something about a sublime evening. I thought sublime was a funny word and giggled. I said we should do this again and fumbled for my phone, to put his number in. There were a lot of numbers. He shook my hand.
And then he was gone, before I could even ask him if he was taking the same route home as me. I missed the last tube, for the first time in my life.