Monthly Archives: May 2018

All My Friends: Gina

I liked to lean in close to the fingerboard as I played, feel the strings vibrating beneath my fingers and through the wood of the body, close enough for the metallic tang of the strings to fill my nostrils. Sometimes I would crouch so that my chin rested right down on the instrument, wrapping myself around it until it felt like a part of me, until the sounds I coaxed from it felt like the sounds I would make if my soul could speak. Tonight it wanted to speak of absence and loss, my hand working the bow to draw long, deep notes: a slow, sad melody for my memories.

I remembered a time when I hadn’t been quite so invisible to them. Jo making me pick out bass lines from whatever record she was into that week, usually something dark and doomy. More recently she’d kept sending me YouTube videos of Apocalyptica or some other group of cellists looking for space in an already crowded field, re-interpreting rock songs in classical forms. This is what you used to do for me, she’d say in her e-mails. I’m not sure picking the riff from Enter Sandman was quite the same thing but she seemed to think it was. I hated all of those groups anyway. If you have Brahms and Bach and Mozart then why would you waste your time on Metallica? I’m not a snob about it – I don’t think I am anyway – but if you’ve painted in all the colours on a palette then why would you settle for using a pencil?

They had always found me serious, I knew that. I sometimes wondered why they’d persisted, all those times badgering me to leave the library or pulling me out of a rehearsal room, dragging me out to the pub or the Union bar or a club. I suspected I was a good influence, a reminder for them to study, to work, and perhaps it helped them unwind more knowing I was out with them, that I wasn’t sat alone in the quiet, methodically trying to improve. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed it despite myself. Some of those nights I was able to shake off the nagging feeling that I had to be buried in a book or consumed in my playing. Some of those nights I had fun.

I hadn’t made it to the reunion and, even though I’d driven all the way out to them, I think I knew that I wasn’t going to really go. I’d made it as far as the cottage, arriving so early that I knew no-one else would be there. I’d sat in the car on the drive for a while, window down, listening to a starling trill, watching it occasionally dart to the ground to grub around for food before it returned to its nest, tucked into the guttering. Mentally I composed a cello counterpoint to its song, even in that moment I couldn’t quite switch off. It didn’t really work. I couldn’t reconcile the keys. The cottage looked just like its picture and I imagined the others arriving, filling it up with their presence and their stories to fill in the blanks between how we’d been then and how we were now. I wasn’t sure I had a story to tell: I was just the same now as I was then, only more so, the solemnity and sadness exaggerated. Maybe that was what they’d given me back then: a break from myself, my relentless self.

There was a kind of ragged beauty in the setting. The tumble-down, down-at-heel cottage slowly succumbing to the encroaching climbing plants and flowers, its walls alive with a buzzing, thrumming throb. I couldn’t help but hear the music in the place, the drone of insects, the whistle of birds, the whisper of leaves unsettled in the wind. It was playing a tune I wasn’t sure I would hear anymore when the others arrived; maybe they had learned to sing outside of their straightforward progressions of the past, something beyond do-re-mi, but I wasn’t convinced. Part of me wondered if it’d do me good to hear something simple but it lost out to the part of me that wanted to retreat somewhere to lay my fingers across strings, pick out a range of tones to say all the things I wanted to say but couldn’t articulate in words.

I liked to lean in close to the fingerboard as I played. I’d checked in to a local B&B, asked for the room on the top floor. If I leaned in real close I could just barely scrape the surface of the strings with the bow, so the resulting sound could scarcely be heard but I could feel it reverberate through the cello, seeping out of me and back into me. I took the sounds I’d heard in the day and what I imagined as the sounds as the old group came together again and I recomposed them into something. Took them in and let them out through all the hours and days and months of effort and practice and purpose and method. And all the contrasting hours, lost to me now and lost to me then, of nothing and of dancing and laughing and talking.

I took those sounds and played an elegy for myself.

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All My Friends: Neil

I don’t function in the countryside. I’d felt myself tense up just driving over the Severn Bridge and seeing those rolling Welsh hills and valleys extend to the horizon. Well, I imagine there’d be rolling hills, great waves of grass spilling over itself, a dazzling emerald expanse, if I could have seen anything through the pissing rain that my one working wiper flapped ineffectually against. If there had been a way to cross the central reservation and hightail it back to a stale coffee and greasy fry up at Aust Services then I’d have done it. Why had Lizzie arranged this nostalgia freak show in the middle of nowhere? I’d just driven past Bristol and, presumably, several functioning bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. Everything, in short, required for a decent night out. The order sometimes varies. Finishing in the hotel rather than the hospital is optimal. I’ve never been to Bristol. It could have been fun. I’d even drink cider if it meant avoiding the onward trek into the wilderness. Is cider a Bristol thing? Or is that pasties? I try not to venture further west than Reading for precisely these reasons: the avoidance of hold-in-one-hand meals wrapped in pastry and alcohol distilled from apples bobbing around in some straw-chewing farmer’s barrel in a barn. But right then, squinting into the deluge plastering itself onto my windscreen, imagining the verdant fields beyond, I would have happily killed a kitten for the chance to bite into some stodgy mincemeat and sup on warm, flat scrumpy rather than keep going.

My first impressions of the cottage were not good. I didn’t really have a benchmark as cottages were another thing I’d deliberately avoided in my life along with tents, horses, farms, summer walks in meadows, autumnal tramps through drifting leaves in the woods, bluebells, campfires, and botanical gardens. I was yet to see a green space I couldn’t mentally improve with concrete, a Starbucks, and wi-fi. There was a purple flower climbing its way up the walls and framing the door that had prompted much delight in the others but which just looked like a drop in centre for drunken, drowsy wasps to me. I’d spotted at least two of the little bastards furiously headbutting a window as soon as I’d stepped inside. Later I learned that this mysterious plant was called wisteria but not before mis-hearing Lizzie and spending a few confused minutes wondering why she was quite so enthusiastic about having contracted listeria. Cue, inevitably, general hysteria.

My first impressions of the others were not good either. This was the second time they’d all made a first impression on me and at least they were consistently disappointing. That first first time, back when nobody was reflexively sucking in their stomach every time someone pulled a camera and everybody’s imagination still outstripped their income, I’d only really been impressed with Richard. He’d always had a confidence about him which I’d mistaken as an acceptance of himself and being a grown up when the rest of us were still kids. It wasn’t until later that I realised he was just a bit of an arrogant arsehole with an inflated sense of entitlement. Therefore, given my track record on first impressions, I wasn’t reading too much into my initial deflation this time around but, seeing them, listening to what they’d done and filling in the blanks on what they hadn’t, I couldn’t help but see my own failures reflected back. I wasn’t the person they had known but I wasn’t sure I was quite the person I’d wanted to be either.

I’d gravitated to Jon as the evening progressed. It wasn’t like I’d planned it but it didn’t surprise me either. If he remembered that night I tried to kiss him then he didn’t bring it up and I could tell from the way his eyes still tracked Clare around the room that not only was he still playing for the wrong side but that he was also still playing out of his league. I think I wanted to tell him that he was important to me but I wasn’t good at sincerity at the best of times and least of all removed from my urban comforts. I don’t mean that I still had feelings for him but I wanted to tell him that his rebuffal was the turning point for me; it was when I realised who I was and felt good about it. The details are a little hazy – tequila will do that – but I do remember him not being a dick about it. Just a kind, gentle even, letting down and then we sat round listening to records until I crashed out on his floor. I don’t tell him any of this. We just talk about some songs like we used to.

As the night started to find its natural end my need for a smoke finally became more urgent than my aversion to being outside. I figured the wasps were probably asleep but I didn’t really want to find out if you could fight off a badger by stubbing it in the eye with a lighted cig. The insistent nicotine nudge was too persuasive. I convinced myself that the same farmer that I wouldn’t be buying cider from anytime soon had probably killed all the local badgers to stop them spreading TB or something. I accept I’m not going to be offered the gig when David Attenborough goes. I know more about Country & Western than I do about the country. What I mainly know is that I don’t like either of them.

I avoided being bitten in the ankle (or throat – maybe they can jump?) by any of the myriad of woodland creatures running rampant in my mind and settled down on the sofa. Jon was still up, playing Astral Weeks now, but I recognised his look, even after all this time. Van was going to give him solace that I couldn’t. If he could hear Richard and Clare shagging through the floor above then he wasn’t letting on. Luckily for him it didn’t seem to last all that long. I flicked on the TV, turned the volume right down, and flicked the channels until I found something to look at that reminded me of civilisation. I don’t even know what it was but it wasn’t green. Tomorrow I’d drive back to Bristol and spend the rest of the weekend in bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. I fell asleep wondering why the hell you had to pay a toll on the Severn Bridge going west but grateful, at least, that I could escape home for free.

All My Friends: Jo, Jo Jo, Joanna

I’m Joanna now. For at least the last five years. Joanna. No, not Jo. Definitely not Jo Jo. Nothing that you can play back to me across the span of years separating us as we are today, all thirty something and figuring we can get on with things now that we know who we are, and how we were then, nebulous, not quite set, wobbling around in the moulds we’d crafted in adolescence, cooling into the hard and fast people we were going to be. No name, in short, that you can append with any of the rhyming prefixes that marked those years together and which, at the time, I had laughed along with. Blow Jo. The time Richard regaled seemingly the whole campus with a tale about our oral adventures. My oral adventures. He wasn’t one to reciprocate which was unfortunate as his three minute missionary mission hadn’t exactly knocked me out of orbit. Houston, we have a problem. Or flow Jo. A personal favourite; a fairly routine, clumsy mishap spilling the contents of my bag onto the floor one night in the pub sparking tampon related hilarity and an incident in which a pint of snakebite and black was soaked up in its super absorbent layers. Crow Jo. I dressed in a lot of black then, stayed pale, went heavy on the mascara, dyed my hair, listened to the Sisters and All About Eve and the Mission, so I vaguely understood this one. Of all of them this was probably the one I’d been happiest to wear as a label back then; their intentions may not have been entirely good but I wore this one like a badge of honour. I’m pretty sure there were others: slow Jo (always late), go Jo (always first to leave), and various comments on my sexual proclivities or otherwise (no Jo if I batted away some cack handed, groping pass from an unwelcome suitor or pro Jo if I decided to have some fun and it was, in the classic male-female double standard, deemed too soon or, heaven forbid, a one night stand).

Joanna suited me better these days. I think they’d all been surprised that I’d cut back my hair, neat bob, still jet black, and they were a little thrown by the suit. I’d come straight from the office. I assume, perhaps, they thought I’d turn up in the bat mobile or astride a giant raven or something rather than in my standard issue, company scheme Ford Mondeo. It was white, had too many miles on the clock for its age, and struggled to start on cold mornings. It got me from A to B and served as a neat metaphorical expression of where I was in my life. I’d spent a decent part of that first evening with all of us back together trying to imagine what each of the others would choose to drive but had given up after pegging Clare as wanting an Alfa – looks lovely, slightly aggressive, but completely unreliable and will always let you down – but needing a Golf – something steadfast and whilst not that sexy to look at, actually quite exciting underneath if you picked up the right model. One of the merits, or otherwise, of working in a brand consultancy was that I could now reduce almost any emotional expression to a mental exercise that shorthanded human behaviour to car choice or likelihood of being life and soul of a party or best-fit celebrity. Clare would be Jennifer Aniston: likeable but doomed to make terrible romantic choices. At a party she’d be the one flirting and subsequently sleeping with the guy with whom she’s done all of this before, writ large, whilst her old friends look on with quiet pity and the man that actually loves her, is obsessed with her, watches in drunken despair. Oh look, that’s exactly what she is doing. Maybe there’s more to those brand projection techniques than I give them credit for.

My main concession to my past, to the old Jo that they’d all known, was to bring my laptop so that, at the very least, the weekend would be soundtracked appropriately. I wasn’t selfish enough to turn every evening into a re-creation of a night out at Sector 5 but I knew that once everyone was suitably refreshed that I’d get away with chucking on ‘Temple Of Love’ or ‘In Between Days’ or, at a push, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. Turns out that I  totally didn’t get away with the Bauhaus. Neil and Jon took over DJ duties at that point to enthusiastic encouragement from the others and played the hits as remembered through everyone’s indie-tinted glasses, presumably with those thick rimmed NHS prescription frames. Some time later, after what seemed like a long discussion, they settled on LCD Soundsystem which I’m not sure was likely to unite the new, shiny us in the same way that, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit united the memory of us. I liked it more than Jo would have: she was a bit more militant about that sort of thing. She would have found it a bit too arch, a bit too knowing. I just danced.

I danced and I remembered. It was like I’d always been on the periphery before, always observing, and a flood of memories came back seeing them all again. Jason holding an upside down, empty pint glass on his head, tears of beer streaking down his cheeks, other hand raised in celebration. Neil asleep on Jon’s floor surrounded by vinyl, the two of them sharing music into unconsciousness. Gina in the library with the lead piping. No, seriously, Gina in the library, protesting as me and Clare dragged her out to join us in the Union on a Friday afternoon. Richard, in a rare moment of not being a total dick, buying that nine bar after our finals and initiating the second summer of love in ’94. To be honest I don’t really remember that: June went up in smoke. Lizzie getting us backstage, into the VIP area, at Glastonbury after blagging security that she was managing PR for Rolf Harris. Back then he needed less PR, not sure even Lizzie could pull that one now. All of us eating vodka jelly and opening our hearts to each other as only drunken strangers can. All of us vowing to keep in touch. All of us swearing these were the best days of our lives.

I danced and I remembered. I even remembered Jo, the various versions of Jo that were foisted on me whether I wanted them or not. I think she would have liked Joanna.

 

All My Friends: Jason

I was pretty drunk but that was not unusual so I had no problem catching Lizzie’s arm, steadying her as she stumbled over her dance steps. It was like I’d re-calibrated my own sense of sobriety over the past couple of years; no drink at all left the world too sharp, too acute and I needed a few units to take the edge off it. Otherwise there was just too much of everything. I suppose I was aware that it was taking a little bit more, steadily month by month, to blunt the razor. I was aware but I had no interest in stopping.

It had been an effort to come. Lizzie was hard to say no to, just like old times. Somehow she’d worn me down, stalking me on social, filling my mobile with texts, piling up mail in my in box. I wasn’t really in touch with the others and so perhaps curiosity had gotten the better of me. They’d all sent messages after 7/7 but Lizzie was the only one that I’d seen in person, insisting on taking me out to various pubs in Highgate, plying me with gin until I’d loosen up enough to talk about it all. Most of those nights ended in tears – my tears – and her arms around me, whispering that I needed to let it out. She meant well but I always felt like her therapy 101 approach to my psychological welfare was akin to her approach to parties when we’d all known each other as students: she was brilliant at making a mess but lousy at clearing up afterwards.

In the end it’d been the promise of some peace in the country that had convinced me. I think Lizzie had sent everyone an invite with a screen grab from Withnail & I on it underscored with a stolen line from the film: “what we need is fresh air, harmony, stuff like that”. Maybe she didn’t realise quite the extent to which I’d been drifting into the arena of the unwell, to steal another line, but seeing Richard E Grant’s disheveled indignance stirred something in me; one washed up, booze soaked loser calling to another. London wasn’t good for me anymore, I knew that. I was double dosing on beta blockers and citalopram just to function, slooshing the pills down with a glass of red on a good day and a bottle on a bad one. I’d started travelling in the rear of tube trains because I figured if someone was going to blow themselves up they’d be near the front, cause more damage as the momentum of the trailing carriages concertinaed into each other. I’d started applying rational assumptions to irrational acts carried out by lunatics. What did that make me?

If you’d have asked me before that day, before the smoke, before picking my way through darkness, nostrils filled with the scent of charred flesh, mouth stung with the iron tang of blood, before the starter-gun blast that had left my ears permanently tuned to a constant background of static, before hearing the confused, frightened cries for help, if you’d asked me just before then I’d have said I missed them all. Lizzie and Jo and Neil and Clare and Richard and Jon and Gina. There had been a time when that was our little universe, each of us orbiting the others. Afterwards a distance opened up. I guess the explosion pushed me out, gave me enough velocity that I just flew off into the darkest reaches of space. How do you break orbit? What would I know? Neil could probably explain it but none of us ever really had the patience for listening to him explain his degree except Jon. And even Jon seemed to give up on him after a while. Everything changed that day. I changed that day and they became, pretty much in an instant, strangers to me.

Nothing in the weekend had caused me to change my view. I saw all of the old routines play out but felt detached from all of them. I used to be a part of it but now I just felt like I was watching a bad remake of The Big Chill or, worse, Peter’s Friends. Jesus, let it be me that’s saved up for the end of the film as the big reveal: I’ll be the one with the incurable disease or the one that died or the one that’s about to be murdered. So I did what I always did lately and I drank. It made the movie more bearable. It slowed things down enough, dialed down my twitchy anxiety enough, to catch Lizzie’s arm as she faltered. I watched her dancing, the others calling her name in time to the song, and watched her unhook her bra, drop it to the floor. Everyone cheered. Same old Lizzie. It reminded me of something we used to do and I thought this was her last attempt to bring me back, to tractor-beam me back into their constellation.

I dropped my jeans, swung my hips in an exaggerated fashion. Lizzie mock spanked me just like all those nights a lifetime ago, all those nights before, and the others laughed and called out encouragement. I fixed a smile on my face and tried to tune in to the joy, to the nostalgia, concentrating on gyrating my hips, forcing as much comedy as I could from the simple act of removing my trousers, but it was drowned out in my head by screams and fire.