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.