Remember that time when we danced in the kitchen to “All My Friends”? It was the end of the night, all of us back together, ten year anniversary meet up. Later on the two of us had drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of “Astral Weeks” floating up through the floorboards, rising like a soft, sweet spell through the house. The covers were still kicked off the bed, lost in the urgency of our prior entanglement. The last thing I heard before you started calling my name, over and over, breath rising faster, coming now in gasps, was Van singing love to love to love to love to love to love and then, for a good long while there was no sound except the beating of your heart, my head collapsed on your chest, your fingers in my hair. I guess I never learn.
I woke up around five a.m., skin raised in bumps against the early morning chill. You must have rolled across the bed at some point in the night taking the duvet with you. Part of me saw the funny side; everything between us in bed had been the same as it always was and you stealing the covers was no different. You were always selfish in bed. To be honest I’d been drunk enough this time that I couldn’t even remember if I’d come last night or even if I particularly cared. I sat for a while on the edge of the bed, arms criss-crossed, knees pulled up to my chest, hands rubbing some warmth back into my body. The room was stale with the smell of last night’s booze and last night’s sex. The sun would be rising soon and it felt like watching it might be my only consolation from a predictable and miserable weekend. I pulled on some clothes and left the room as quietly as I could. Not out of concern. I couldn’t face another one of our morning-after conversations.
The night’s black was softening to a dark blue as I left the house. Someone was asleep on the sofa in the lounge, TV fizzing with static lines opposite them. The kitchen looked like a Tracey Emin installation, there was a skyline of discarded, empty bottles arranged in a line on the table we’d all sat round for dinner a few hours ago, and the floor was strewn with a set of clues about how the evening had gone. Several corks. Smudged cigarette ash. Somebody’s iPhone. A bra. Not mine. Too big. I guessed maybe it was Lizzie’s. A pair of Levi’s. Also not mine. I couldn’t place them but I knew they weren’t yours. I remembered enough to know we’d made it upstairs still dressed. I knew because the anticipation of you was always what tripped me up, seemingly even after all this time. Van was still singing quietly from the speaker in the kitchen. Stuck on repeat through the night.
It was chilly outside but the air cleared the fog in my head; the cold felt like clarity, cutting through last night’s heat. It had been a surprise to see you and maybe that’s why all my good intentions turned bad. What’s that saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It wasn’t hell. At best it was two old friends rekindling something they once sort of had. At worst it was a drunken reunion fuck that didn’t last long enough to remember why we’d ever slept together in the first place. You seemed to enjoy it so I guess I could console myself with the fact that I’ve still got it. The worst of it really is that it happened, that I let it happen, made it happen even. It had been a good night, catching up with old faces and kicking around the times we’d all been together before, living on top of each other in student rentals and cooking up another variation on pasta and tuna, or toast, endless rounds of toast, and drinking cheap sherry straight from the bottle before we’d head out to some retro 70s night at the Union. It was only ten years on and now it was all Prosecco and tagines – one meat, one vegetarian – and swapping stories about first homes, second homes, mortgages, trips to Ikea and how many weddings there had been this year. Underneath I guess it was still the same. The dynamics in the group settled into the same rhythms. Me and you settled into the same rhythm.
How could I have been so fucking stupid? You hadn’t changed. The same cock-sure smile, the same easy conversation, the same self-assuredness. When you’d told me you were “in the City” now I nearly spat out my wine. It was too obvious and too perfect. Of course you were “in the City” and, no doubt, perfectly at home there. You didn’t look surprised when I said I was teaching. God, I think you even said something, it could have been “good for you” like the patronising twat you are and, instead of turning away and joining back in the conversation about that night we all moved our mattresses out of our rooms and slept outside in the Quad when we were all in Halls, I smiled and thanked you. I was like a needle being dropped on vinyl. I just settled back into a groove that had been well worn in years ago and let the same old song spin. We both knew the tune and the words. It’s a song I thought I’d given up singing.
The sun lit the horizon and a honey-glow spread across the gardens around the house. Birds began to chatter and trill, breaking the stillness of the dawn. My head was starting to ache and so I headed back into the wreckage of the kitchen to see if somewhere amid the carnage there was a packet of paracetamol. Even just a glass of water. Something to shake the pain. I guess, misguided as I was, that’s all you were the night before. Something to shake the pain.
I’d spent too much time stuck talking to Neil. He’d cornered me as I’d gone over to the laptop – Jo’s I think – that was acting as jukebox for the evening. The screen was cycling through a bunch of old photos, all of us back in the day; a ragbag assortment of early 90s band tee-shirts, ill advised fringes, over sized graduation gowns, that weekend we went camping in the Peak District and tried to find magic mushrooms, out of focus shots of the inside of pubs, young blurred faces refracted through half full pint glasses and bottles of Diamond White. It was strange seeing us like that, all digital. Pictures had never formed part of our moments back then, they were something you dug out and looked at weeks after the event. I was surprised she’d kept them and gone to the trouble of scanning them all in. I’d long since discarded all but a handful of mine and I think I preferred our youth when it was analogue and disposable.
Me and Neil had been pretty close for a while. I’d been a bit surprised that he’d been invited as I knew the others had been happy to lose touch after we’d all drifted off after college. He’d single handedly got me through the stats modules on our course and I was grateful for that. He was lousy at reading people for someone that had a degree in psychology though, and all of the reasons why our friendship had waned over the years came back to me as he picked apart every song choice I made trying to liven things up after dinner had been cleared away. The Wonderstuff. Like a watered down Waterboys, they sounded old back then, let alone now. Okay then, The Waterboys. Celtic music for people that have never been to Scotland or Ireland, roots music for people with no roots. Nirvana. Pixies with a poster boy but without Kim Deal. Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Two words. Slap. Bass. And on and on. Eventually I put on LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and left him mid sentence (New Order moved to New York, hired a publicist and started self referring constantly…) to cajole the others into dancing.
We were all pretty drunk and the effects of the alcohol, as well as some kind of nostalgia muscle memory, pulled everyone into place in the room as if we were all back, 19, 20 years old, as if nothing had happened to any of us since. I slipped back into my patented head down indie-shuffle, only now without my hair dropping across my face. What was it Lizzie used to say to me? Something about eyes being the windows on the soul so why did I cover mine with a pair of curtains? She was up and dancing too, as unrestrained and enthusiastic as she always had been. She still sang along loudly, seemingly untroubled by actually knowing the words although, by the end, she’d picked up the “where are your friends tonight?” refrain which she embellished with an expansive sweep of her arms which seemed to signify that said friends were right here. It was a bit literal. Clare was dragging Richard on to our make-shift dance floor. We’d all seen this before and knew how it ended. I watched her flick her hair, tilt her head to one side, saw her beckon to him with an out-stretched finger. He took his time, all casual disinterest, eventually acquiescing with a hands-up gesture of mock surrender and then they were circling each other, orbiting closer and closer until he leant in, whispered something in her ear and they both laughed. I remembered too many nights and too many mornings picking up the pieces and forced myself to look away. Clare was as beautiful, as out of reach, as stupid as I remembered. But I think I still loved her and so I guess I was just as stupid too.
Later, as everyone started to drift off to bed, I put on Van Morrison, a gentle serenade for sleep. It was the record playing that one time we made love. You teased me about it for the longest time afterwards – it was just a drunken shag, Jon – but I know what it really was. To me at least. Another night that had started dealing with the fall out from another of your run ins with Richard but had ended with your mouth on mine, nails dug into my back. The way young lovers do. Sweet thing. Slim slow slider. Van was singing those sensuous songs just for us, the melodies swirling like tendrils of smoke around us as we entwined.
Now he was just singing them for me and my memory of you. Through the ceiling, from somewhere upstairs, I heard laughter and then, steadily, the rhythmic knocking of a headboard. I turned the music up and poured another glass of wine.
It was all fabulous. Exactly as I’d pictured and planned it: the cottage, the reunion, the long rambling walk through the countryside, the dinner and drinks, the old times marked by a new time together. I’d seen the cottage in a magazine and knew instantly, surreptitiously ripping out the page and stuffing it into my handbag, nonchalantly glancing up to see if anybody in the waiting room had noticed. I just knew. We all had to get back together and it had to be there. It was the impulsive Aries in me but there was something so right about it that I spent the next few days trawling social media, tracking everyone down, getting this thing set up. The girls had pretty much all said yes straight away – Clare needed a bit of a pep talk – and once the boys knew that the girls were coming then they’d all fallen into line. Just as I knew they would. Predictable boys who’d become predictable men. Fun though. Hopefully they’d be caught unawares by unpredictable Lizzie.
The cottage leaned towards the ramshackle side of shabby-chic, all of the furniture was not so much distressed as pleading for help, but I still loved it. For the longest time I just stood outside taking in the sweet smell of the wisteria clambering up a trellis on the front of the house, a riot of pink and purple to rival the contents of my make up bag. Okay, almost rival. I had hoped the others would arrive to discover me resplendent in front of the flowers, perhaps toting a small glass of something fizzy, reading something serious and romantic like Emily Bronte or Daphne Du Maurier but a local farmer started muck spreading in the next field along, ruining the ambience, and I remembered that I’d only bought Jilly Cooper’s “Riders” with me anyway so I waited for them all inside.
If I was completely honest with myself my heart did sink a little when I first opened the door. The apparently very recently applied disinfectant didn’t quite mask the slightly musky, damp smell, as if someone had hurriedly tried to clean up after two wet dogs. Not dogs like my beloved Judy either, more like the ones that chased her around Hampstead Heath trying to mount her. Poor thing. Their outsized amorous attentions always reminded me of that unfortunate night I spent with Giles from the First XV who insisted on initiating sex by calling a scrum, shouting that he was about to bind on, before declaring ‘ball coming in now’ at the moment of penetration. He had a sticker on his door in Halls that read “I like playing with odd shaped balls: do you?” which I assume he meant as a joke but the strange thing was that he really did have very odd shaped balls. I told him he should probably get them checked out and we never really saw each other again after that.
I opened a few windows to let in some air – mostly slightly pungent manure tinged air – and bagged myself the best bedroom. Huge double bed – why not be optimistic – and the only en suite bathroom. The bath boasted a stained in tide mark, a yellowing brown line running a couple of inches below its top, but it was nothing that half a bottle of Molton Brown wouldn’t hide. An explosion of bubbles and a few carefully placed candles, quietly exhaling lavender and sandalwood, and it would suffice. I now hoped the others would arrive to discover me ensconced in foam, reclining, glass of champagne in one hand, spurting shower head in the other, their imaginations running wild, assuming they’d caught me in flagrante, exclaiming at my outrageousness. Sadly the plug didn’t fit flush in the plug hole and the bath would only stay full if I sat on it, the combination of that digging in to my buttocks and the taps poking me in the back forced me to give up. The shower didn’t work properly either. There wasn’t enough pressure to rinse clean the bath oils from my skin let alone get me worked up into a lather.
But it was fabulous. Really it was. When they all did finally arrive I felt as excited as I had the night Daniel Braithwaite had introduced me to his tongue piercing. Something of an oversight not inviting him to be honest although none of the others had really taken to him. Such prudes. It was wonderful. We talked and ate and then, later on, we danced in the kitchen. Someone had put on that Vic Reeves “Dizzy” song that had been out when we’d been at Uni and, just like they used to, everyone had changed the words to “Lizzie”. I was a little tipsy and had spun on the spot, the room blurring, faces from the past flickering in and out of view. I think Jason had caught my arm as I slowed down, stumbling a little, head still spinning long after my body had stopped. I was tipsy but not so drunk that I couldn’t still feel the lump under my breast rubbing against the underwire on my bra. Since it’d grown I’d stopped wearing all of the lacy stuff that I liked, settling for something more comfortable – god forbid, even those hideous sports bras – but I’d made an exception tonight. Just in case. To feel more comfortable I ran my hand up my back, unhitched the clips, and made great show of wriggling the straps free from my shoulders, pulling the bra free from under my top before dropping it in the middle of the kitchen floor. The others found it hilarious, bellowing “Lizzie” along with the song even more loudly; just another moment of spontaneous, delicious outrage to add to my long list.
After I went to bed, alone, I found, in my handbag, the photo of the cottage that I’d ripped from that magazine in the waiting room a few months ago. You get a decent class of magazine in the oncology ward at London Bridge. Next to the photo was an unopened letter with the hospital’s address stamped on the front and my test results inside. I turned it over in my hands and, like all the other times, teased at a small tear on the top of the envelope with a fingernail. A perfectly polished, manicured fingernail. I put the envelope back in my bag. It would be fine. No, it would be fabulous.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am here and it already feels like a mistake. I’d had other options this weekend. They were all good. Number one: Bodger’s stag in St Tropez, second marriage but new fiancée seemingly more open minded than the outgoing Mrs Bodger and so less likely to break down in tears at her own wedding at the reveal in the best man’s speech that her husband had paid to snort a line of coke laid out perfectly in the cleft of some stripper’s arse. Number two: invite to meet Jacinda’s parents down at Sandbanks, two days of making polite small talk with her old man about yields and the best shirt makers on Jermyn Street as the foreplay for two nights of teasing his daughter out of her perfectly pressed clothes and seeing if everyone would still make eye contact over breakfast after they’d heard their pride and joy squealing at me to go deeper, go harder, through their shockingly thin walls for such an expensive house. Number three: boss had invited me to join him for golf and then drinks at some private member’s club he belonged to, promised to fast track me in to both; I can’t stand the prick but I need his contacts and network.
It could just be the coke making me a bit paranoid but I’m not feeling much warmth from my former comrades. Even when I tell them what else I could have been up to this weekend. I stop short of suggesting they should be grateful that I’m here, it’s not like I was crass about it. I suppose it’s a little sobering for them to face into their relative failure in life, funny how we could all exit the same University at the same moment but on such different trajectories. Some of us were always headed upwards. It’s going to be a long night so I retreat to the bathroom to do another line. It will at least speed everything up and make Neil and Jon’s dreadful musical choices a bit more bearable. Will remind me what it was I saw in Clare all those years ago as well. She still looks at me like she’ll dance to my tune so I might as well salvage something from the night even if it’s just a nostalgia fuck.
The coke brings a clarity, a sharpness, to the scene. I can feel palpable resentment from Jon as I start talking to Clare just as I can practically see her sense of conflict between wanting to believe this time will be different and remembering all the times I let her down before. I thought perhaps the intervening years would have given her distance enough to see through my tricks but, instead, they seem to have offered up new opportunity. We haven’t been in touch and the space means that part of me is unknown to her now. I fill that space with the version of me she wants to hear, the version she’s secretly been carrying around for the last ten years, the version that regrets ever letting her go and has come to the realisation that she’s the great, lost love of my life. It’s so easy I almost don’t go through with it. I used to like it when it was a challenge getting her into bed.
Upstairs I realise I’ve misplaced my phone, I was fishing around for it to see if she was up for a few candid photos. She always drew the line at that when we first knew each other, said she couldn’t just turn up at Boots and ask for that set of prints. I couldn’t tell her that you didn’t go to Boots – there were places you sent those kind of pictures – as it would blow my cover, reveal me as the sort of person that did this a lot rather than the constructed person who had never done this sort of thing before but only wanted to now because it felt so special with you. Only you. I must have left my phone downstairs. It was too late to retrieve it. I could hear Clare undressing in the bedroom and I’d necked a couple of viagra tablets – the only downside of my cocaine habit was a literal downside downstairs but it was easy enough to coax some life back into the beast with a little additional pharmaceutical help. I went back into the bedroom, my fully saluting cock leading the way.
It wasn’t even Clare that found the body. She’d sat outside, early in the morning, for an hour or so until Neil had woken up on the sofa. The two of them had talked for a while, half heartedly clearing up the detritus from the night before. Joanna had joined them, then Jon, then Lizzie, and finally Jason, nursing a hangover forged in the fires of hell. The six of them had talked quietly for a while, lamenting the fact that Gina hadn’t showed, kicking around memories from a time when early morning reconstructions of the night before had been a regular occurrence. Lizzie had found Richard’s phone, distracted from making another round of tea by the urgent, vibrating buzz of a missed call and then repeated voice mail prods. Joanna had volunteered to rouse him in case the call was important. Clare shook her head, smiled wryly, told them all that she knew she was stupid, knew that she should have learned. Joanna rested her hand on Clare’s arm in reassurance and set off with the phone. All of them hit the stairs a minute later when they heard her shouting.
Later the police found the powder and the pills. Even later the coroner recorded it as misadventure. The funeral was the last time any of them saw each other again.