On his last Saturday Mick was early. He hadn't slept well. As he walked into the yard Albert and Steve were rolling up the tarpaulin on the architrave rack.
Steve called over. 'Fuck me! What did you do, shit the bed?'
Mick knew the script. 'Funny you should say that.'
Together they prepared for the start of business, then gathered behind the counter for a few minutes of peace before the gates opened. Steve played a clumsy drum roll on the counter with two scraps of dowel. 'All set for the jolly boys' outing then?' With his foot he gently nudged the carrier bag of Heinekens he'd stashed to one side. 'Got me supplies for the train there look.'
Albert smiled. 'Should be good. Bit of a sad one too though.'
Steve agreed. 'Yeah be sorry to see you go. You going to have a breather before you start college then?'
'A bit, yeah. I'm going to have a gap month.'
Albert jutted out his chin, rubbed it the way he did. 'Who'd've thought it, eh?'
Nobody actually. They might have thought it of some of the lads at head office that they dealt with on the phone. But Mick leaving to go to university? Not even Mick expected that. The men saw him as one of their own, only quieter and more boring.
So today, when the yard closed at one, their annual drinking trip to the coast would double as Mick's goodbye.
At 8.45 Dave sloped in just at the end of the opening rush.
Steve said, 'What did you do, fall in? You want to tie your boots to the bedstead.'
Albert, sterner, said 'You working gentleman's hours now, then?'
Dave served the one customer remaining, a man in his late twenties with a middle class accent. As the customer paid and left, Dave turned to Mick. 'That'll be you this time next year. Talking over your glasses at people, breath minging with Friday night's garlic.'
'Fuck off. I won't get like that.'
'You wait till you're at University. His lot won't want to know you. They're like the Old Bill. Stick to their own because deep down they know no-one else can stand them.'
It grieved Mick, Dave's begrudging. What was he expecting? That they'd spend the rest of their lives doing exactly the same stuff? Same school, same youth club, down the Careers the same day, end up here, stay here?
When he started the first evening class, Dave seemed okay about it. But Mick's reasons were simpler then. He'd read about Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins going to acting classes to meet girls. The acting class was full so he took Sociology 'A' level. Within a fortnight he knew there was nobody in the class he fancied, but he thought he might as well stay and get his money's worth.
Late morning, he went into the shed to brew up. While the kettle boiled he flicked through the magazines piled under the small table. Among the readers' wives was a thin blonde woman alleged to be from Lewisham. Her face was turned away from the camera. He wondered if he might know her.
A strange sadness came to him. He remembered dinner hours he'd spent in this shed. The time just after he'd begun his English 'A' level, sitting reading 'Daniel Deronda.' Dave had walked in with his sandwich box under his arm, looked at the breeze block of a novel and asked, 'Any shagging in it?'
He asked what the big appeal was with the studying. Mick said Sociology was like looking through binoculars; you got to see the big picture. And English Lit was like looking through the wrong end of binoculars. You saw less and felt further away, but the details seemed clearer.
Dave muttered, 'Fuck me,' and began his sandwiches.
But there was more to the change between them. There was the look Mick began giving Dave when he spat complaints about the prices in the Asian shop across the road, or when he referred to the lads on his estate as silvery moons.
And the reason for the look was Anthea. In the English class, Mick had finally pulled. Once, when he'd had enough of Dave's bullshit, he sprang her photo on him. He took it from his wallet, handed it over saying, 'Never met Anthea, have you?'
The photo showed her at a party. She wore a white top and gold hoop earrings.
Dave looked at the picture. 'You should've said.'
'Don't know. Should've said something when I was saying stuff.'
'Not up to me, is it? Shouldn't need to.'
The subject was left.
At one o'clock they locked the yard. They caught the Brighton train at London Bridge. It was a popular choice. The previous year they'd gone to Margate but the length of the journey meant everyone had been arseholed on canned lager by the time they arrived.
The plan was to have two pints in each pub until their money ran out or the last train left for home. In the first pub, the Ship, Albert cleared his throat, raised his Guinness and said, 'Absent friends.'
They all echoed his words and drank.
After some thought Steve said, 'Who do you mean, then?'
Dave agreed. 'Yeah. I was thinking that.'
Albert tilted his head to one side. 'That Tony. And Amarjit.'
Dave muttered, 'Weren't my fucking mates.'
Albert heard him. 'Both good lads, they were. Sorry I had to let them go. Tony could be moody but Amarjit was good as gold.'
'Wasn't exactly the hardest working man in showbusiness, was he?' Dave said.
Mick looked at him. 'How do you work that out?'
'Come off it. He was spark out on the loft insulation every dinnertime.'
Steve joined in. 'Fair play to him though; it was his own time. And he must've been shagged doing that second job on the side.'
Dave curled his lip. 'Yeah. Fucking money mad, them.'
Mick just sat rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Albert, peacemaker, said, 'Got on alright with Tone though, didn't you.'
'Even he got on me tits half the time. Always making that sucking noise they make when they've got the hump.'
Mick raised his head slowly. 'What, kissing his teeth?'
'Yeah that's it.' Dave paused. 'I used to be able to do that at school. Trying to act hard I suppose. Or cool, or some bollocks.'
Mick shook his head, stood and made for the toilets.
By the time they reached the Clarendon he just wanted to tell him and get it over with. But it was too soon. He couldn't spoil the day for him. He was still a mate after all, wasn't he?
He watched him ordering drinks at the bar. He felt something difficult, complicated and unnameable. They'd been coming apart for so long. There were no sudden movements but there were markers along the way.
Like the stuff with Dave's birthmark. It had always been there, but the autumn before, it began to itch, darken and weep. Mick only found out when Dave mentioned he'd be off work for a few days.
Mick said, 'Doing anything good?'
Dave said, 'Tell you what, it must be a fucking fantastic view up your arse, the amount of time you spend with your head up it.'
Mick gave a silent goldfish pout.
'You're about the only fucker who doesn't know.' Dave explained about the melanoma and the coming operation to remove it.
'Why didn't you tell me?'
'What the fuck for? Not about you, is it?'
Mick wanted to retaliate, but let the moment pass. But Dave hadn't finished with him yet. When Mick visited him the day after the operation, he took the chance for a free dig.
He said, 'Wasn't worried about the op so much. More scared when the mole thing started growing.' He paused, looked at his friend. 'I was shitting meself. Thought I was turning black.' He looked at Mick again, saw the comment hit home, smiled.
In the Hope, Mick was given his leaving collection. Albert did the opposite of the expected. He waited until Mick was at the bar alone. He walked up beside him, slapped a tatty envelope of new fivers onto the bar and said, 'There you go, old son. Had a bit of a whip. Don't think you realise how well thought of you are here.'
Mick had expected to feel embarrassed but felt something more like shame and didn't know why. He looked over at Dave and Steve, sat in an alcove at the other end of the pub. They grinned across. He gave them the thumbs up. They seemed a long way off.
He took them their drinks and thanked them for the money. Steve urged him to keep in touch. Mick thought ahead to future outings like this. He knew he'd be invited but he didn't yet know how he'd respond. He imagined making excuses and feeling guiltier every time, or dutifully turning up and seeing these friendships dying.
Dave looked at Steve, then Mick. 'You'll be around though won't you? Not like you're going far.'
It had to be now. Mick took the head off his pint. He looked at Dave, then at the ashtray. 'Been a bit of a change of plan as it goes.'
'Been meaning to say. I'm not going to North London now. I'm taking that offer from East Anglia.'
'How the fuck you going to get up there every day then?'
Mick sighed. 'Fuck me, Dave, what do you want me to do, draw you a picture?'
Dave looked at Albert and Steve. They already knew.
Albert leaned forward, putting himself between the two friends. 'Expect you'll be in halls of whatsit won't you?'
'Yeah. To start with anyway.'
Nobody spoke, until eventually, Steve said, 'Anyone fancy the chippy?'
'Yeah,' Albert said. 'Have a mooch on the beach while we're at it. Fucking daft going to the seaside and just sit in the pub all day.'
The sun was going down. They sat on the pebbles eating the too-hot chips. They made 'o' shapes with their mouths, enjoying the tang of the vinegar.
'Getting cooler now,' Albert said.
'Yeah,' Mick said. 'We did it in Geography. Breeze comes off the sea in the evening.'
Dave muttered something that sounded like, 'Know-it-all prick,' and stood up. He screwed his chip wrapper into a ball and drop kicked it towards the water.
Mick got up and stood alongside him. 'Don't be like this mate.'
Dave carried on looking out to sea. At the water's edge a heavily built black girl and her small sister were paddling, walking tentatively into the waves. Dave cupped a hand at the side of his mouth and shouted, 'Go on, that's it, go further!'
The girls didn't turn around. Either the wind had blown his words away or the sisters had chosen to ignore him.
'For fuck's sake, Dave.'
'Just for fuck's sake, you know.'
'Nothing. Leave it. Doesn't matter.'
Dave seemed to need the last word. He squared up to Mick, about a foot in front of him. 'You always were a twat.'
He turned and stomped off up the beach. The shingles prevented him from looking angry and dramatic. He just looked clumsy and breathless.
Mick followed him for a few yards until Albert put a hand on his arm. 'I'd leave him for a while. He'll feel better for a bit of a sulk.'
In the bar at the station Albert said, 'Same every year. Somebody gets sick, has a row, or loses the others. Perm any one of three.'
Steve said, 'Maybe we could have a wander round. See if he's about.'
Albert shook his head. 'We can see all the platforms from here. Bound to show up sooner or later.'
'I feel like I've messed the day up,' Mick said.
Albert looked at him. 'Don't be daft. You haven't done anything. He'll come round.'
'Yeah. Even if he doesn't, it's his lookout isn't it? Can't live your life according to what everyone else wants.'
'Easy to say though, isn't it?'
Steve pointed towards the window of the bar. 'There he is look. Daft sod.' He rapped on the window with his ring finger.
Dave turned to see. He stood still, then turned to look at the waiting trains, at the departure board. He looked again at Steve.
Mick walked from the bar to where Dave stood. 'Alright?'
'Look, it's not like I'm leaving the country.'
The words fell out before Mick could stop them. 'You could come up weekends. Anthea's going to drive up when she can. She'd probably give you a lift.'
He imagined Dave hunched in the back of Anthea's Nissan, the empty flat hours travelling across empty flat countryside, to meet people he didn't belong with, in a place he didn't belong.
Dave said, 'Could do I suppose. If she don't mind. I'd bung in for the petrol.'
Mick nodded. 'You coming in for a last pint then?'
Dave looked at him.
Mick said, 'I mean, last pint before the train.'