These two blokes walk into a pub.
‘Two-thirty a pint! Fuck me. I’d want it poured over me and licked off for that price,' Terry said, his eyes wide.
‘Get used to it.’ Steve smiled. ‘You’re not in the back end of Kent now.’
They found seats near the pool table. Steve shrugged off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair. ‘Remember when we started coming here? Thirty five pee a pint then.’
‘Good then though, wasn’t it? When they were still having bands on. Squeeze was down here a lot. See A.T.V a few times.’
‘Yeah. Plus that time we walked in and Dire Straits were playing.’
‘We pretended we’d come in to get some fags and fucked off again.’
That was a close one.
Steve lit an Embassy. ‘I was going to say. I got this Crass compilation the other week.’
‘Any good?’ Terry asked.
‘Rotten. I put it on repeat play on the c.d. when we go out. Scare off burglars. Have it if you like, it’s stinking the flat out.’
Terry laughed. ‘I might do. Liked them. Always ready with a song and a smile.’
‘The Pop Group were more my thing. “We Are All Prostitutes”, “For How Much Longer Must We Tolerate Mass Murder?” They don’t write songs like that any more.’
Round the curve of the bar came Ian, pink with the cold, polishing his glasses as he walked. ‘Sorry I’m late. I came the pretty way.’ He looked glum for a moment. ‘There was a woman having a piss outside Londis.’
‘Who?’ Terry asked.
‘One of the streetdrinkers. I don’t know her to speak to, Terry. Or even make eye contact with, let’s face it.’
‘Jesus. You get older, you expect things to just seem worse, not actually get worse.’
‘I know. Other week a guy got stabbed seventeen times in Giffin Street toilets.’
‘Christ! Yeah?’ said Terry.
‘Yeah. You’d think he’d stop going back there after the first couple of times.’
‘Sod,’ said Terry.
Ian looked down at Terry and Steve’s glasses. ‘Just nipping to the lav.’
‘Alright,’ Terry said. ‘We’ll wait.’
As Ian headed for the gents Steve and Terry smiled to each other.
‘Nice to see some things don’t change.’
‘Tell me about it. Short arms, long pockets.’
‘How’s things Terry?’ Ian asked, lowering the triangle of pints. ‘Haven’t seen you since, well, Dan’s thing.’
‘I keep meaning to come up more. Settled I suppose. You know what it’s like.’
‘Not really, no.’ Ian glanced down at his pint, then up again. ‘How’s Lisa the crusty?’
Three years before, they’d all driven down to a party in Swale, which they’d heard about in the Bird’s Nest. Nobody knew whose party it was. Terry first saw Lisa dancing in the garden, her boots huge, her hands flapping like small birds nailed to something. Later, they were both standing on the landing in the queue for the toilets. Two people with ponytails walked past. One said to the other, ‘Yes. I find that sort of tactility can be very healing.’ Terry and Lisa looked at one another, raised an eyebrow each and collapsed into laughter.
He asked her how she got her hair to locks up like that. He was curious. She explained. She asked him about his teeshirt. It was the one with the nuns on, having a cigarette.
‘Just something I threw on,’ he said.
‘You’re supposed to say that when you’ve achieved an effect,’ she said.
‘Yeah?’ he said. ‘And?’
She took the piss out of him from the start. He enjoyed it. After he’d been talking to where she was stood for a solid five minutes, she leaned across, touched his wrist and said, ‘Anyway, enough about yourself, what about me?’
He was back and forth to her place for months. She found him some work subbying. He moved in.
‘She’s fine cheers, Ian. You still with Ana the Spaniard?’
‘No. That’s over.’ Ian shrugged, flicking a beermat across his knuckles.
‘She seemed to really like you.’
‘Yeah. I must gain something in translation.’
‘You’re terrible.’ Steve sighed.
‘I know, I know. I like to get the trial separation in early on, I suppose.’ Ian was good at starting things. Some people like that self-deprecating stuff; Do you fancy going out sometime? We could get to know each other, you could go off me. All that. He could manage all the glances and the smiles and the questions and the wondering, but nothing lasted.
‘I’ve heard it all before mate. I suppose there’s someone new ?’
‘Donna. I feel like I’m sixteen again.’
‘Brings you out in acne does she?’
‘You always are for a couple of months. You’re murder.’
A quiet happened. Each of the three frowned, as if each had meant to say something but couldn’t remember what. Ian spoke. ‘Well, here we all are then.’
‘No. Not really.’ Terry pulled an imaginary hair from the head of his pint.
‘No.’ Steve fished for another cigarette.
No. Not really. Not really at all. Danny was dead. He’d drowned himself the previous November.
He went to Deptford station one Saturday night, supposedly to catch the train to Greenwich. The tape from the closed circuit cameras showed that once the train had gone and the platform cleared, he stepped down onto the tracks and began walking towards Greenwich. At the point where the track crossed Deptford Creek he must have thrown himself into the water.
Maybe he meant to jump under the train, but couldn’t face the thought of the impact. Maybe he considered the distress of witnesses. Maybe drowning seemed less ugly. Maybe he always did find choice difficult. Although not impossible. Obviously.
‘It’s a fucking mystery.’
‘Maybe we should’ve met somewhere else. Too many nights we had together here.’
‘I know. The nights we had with Dan where you’d laugh till your face hurt. I don’t understand. He wasn’t the sort.’
‘I know. I know that.’
Smiling now, Steve said, ‘Just after they had the theatre put in upstairs he dragged me to see some Ibsen play. About this kid who falls off a table and knackers his legs.’
‘I remember you saying.’
‘I was bored shitless. Then it got to this bit where the kid drowns in a fjord. Dan leans over and goes “Thank fuck for that; he was getting right on my tits.’
Terry’s lager went down the wrong way.
Steve continued. ‘I nearly wet meself. We had to run out. We stood at the bottom of the stairs getting our breath back. I said, “That Ibsen; he wants to fucking cheer up a bit.” That started Dan off again. I can see him now, stood there killing himself.’
‘That with Danny though,’ Ian grasped for the words he needed. ‘I mean, everybody’s thought of it sometime.’
There was one evening. Ian had been teaching at Deptford Green for nine years. He’d been in tears with it some nights. His dad was round. He stood framed in the bedroom doorway saying, ‘If I knew you was going to end up doing a sixty hour week I never would’ve pushed you like I did.’
He had to save himself. He gave in his notice at the school and started lecturing part-time at Lewisham College. English and Communications. Early on, a colleague explained that English was English, and Communications was obedience training for Y.T.S victims.
Had it all been worth it, that dislocation he and Danny had put themselves through? They compared notes after their respective college interviews. As with so many things, the tiniest detail can be decisive. It’s not the content that matters but the way you handle it, the way you make the best of the things that go wrong. Each named Goldsmiths’ as first choice. At interview each did two wrong things and one right thing.
Ian talked fluently and confidently about his ‘A’ level texts. Dr Henry, the admissions tutor, made an initial exasperated comment on a fresh sheet of A4; Brodie’s Notes! Asked why he had chosen Goldsmiths’, Ian, blank, blurted that he only lived round the corner, and was a moment too slow in stressing that this, of course, was only a small part of the reason.
Dr Henry skimmed absently through Ian’s application form. They used to ask your parents’ occupation, presumably to see if you were one of their own. Henry looked up from the form. ‘I see your mother’s deceased.’
‘She’s dead,’ Ian answered.
Henry looked again at the form, noticing for the first time. ‘Yes. I see you’ve written that. Most people would write deceased, I think,’ he said, waving the green form vaguely.
‘But she’s dead’
‘Yes. She is.’
Henry wrote a final four words on his sheet of notes; interesting concern with precision. He looked again at Ian and offered him a place.
Danny told Dr Henry how he got into Shelley. He explained how there was a steal from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in the lyrics of a Scritti Politti B-side. He explained how, later, he decided to investigate further, when he read a quotation from the same poem on the back of a Jam LP. Henry noted another blank sheet with two words and an exclamation mark; own angle! For the sake of accuracy I’ve just checked the cover of that Jam L.P, and got the pun in the title for the first time; that’s education!
Asked what he read for light relief, Danny, blank, blurted that he liked Stephen King, and was a moment too slow in stressing that this, of course, was for very light relief.
Henry scanned absently across his bookshelves, wondering where his next question was coming from. ‘Have you read anything by Joyce?’ he asked.
Danny sat up, alert suddenly. ‘Joyce who?’ he said. Leaning across as if to touch the Doctor’s sleeve he went on. ‘Only joking. Quite a bit as it goes.’
Casually Henry wrote another word on the piece of paper; clever. ‘Such as?’ he asked.
‘ “Dubliners”, “Portrait of the Artist”, about half of “Ulysses”.’
‘Which half of “Ulysses” did you read? The first half or the second half?’ the tutor asked. He sat back and smiled thinking ‘top that.’
Danny leaned forward. ‘Every other word all the way through. I couldn’t get any sense out of it.’ Danny smiled, thinking ‘top that.’
Henry wrote a final four words on his sheet of notes; too clever by half. He looked again at Dan and said they’d be in touch.
So Ian went to Goldsmiths’ and Danny went to Thames Poly.
Ian sighed. ‘It’s just sometimes I wonder if it was worth all the upheaval me and Dan went through. College and that.’
‘I thought maybe,’ Steve gestured with his cigarette hand, ‘if with Dan that was part of it.’
Terry frowned, his top lip raised.
‘Like he got lost.’
Terry disagreed. ‘No. That was the best. I was amazed when he did that, just decided like that, out of nowhere.’
Ian failed his ‘A’ levels at eighteen. Falling in love again. After two years, floundering, signing on, temping, he’d decided to try again at evening classes. Give it a year then write off the idea. He was sat in the first class of term.
‘Next thing, I feel this dig in the ribs. It’s Danny. He’s plonked himself in the spare seat beside me. He sits there smirking.’
In the coffee break Ian asked Danny what the fuck he was doing there. Danny, casual, said, ‘I’m going to go to university and do English.’
Ian, amazed, said, ‘But Dan, it’s not easy.’ He stopped himself reminding Danny that he’d failed English Lit ‘O’ level.
Dan just smiled. ‘Ah fuck it. Middle class people do it, how hard can it be?’ He said it too loud. Everybody looked round.
‘He used to come straight from work every Tuesday, stinking. The lecturer used to open a window when he turned up. Got right into it though.’
‘Who was that wanker at the shop that give him a bollocking?’
‘Hobbes, that was.’
Danny, then, was working in the building section of a big D.I.Y store in Charlton. It was shit; the rashes and the grazes and the bruises, the shameful bright-red dungarees.
You can’t be too careful who you tell what. Somehow the manager Hobbes heard of Danny’s daft dream. Over the Tannoy, he called Dan into the office.
‘I suppose you’ll be coming in to work in a cravat from now on then?’
‘You heard. Now that you’re studying litterachoor.’
‘A little bird tells me you think you’re going to university. What’s the idea?’
‘Well, it’s just a thought. It’ll be years yet. If ever.’
‘A cunt I’d look wouldn’t I? Give you all that training then you ponce off to college.’
‘All what training?’
‘I mean it Danny. I had you down as one to watch for the future.’
Dan snorted and thought, you’ll have to watch me from a distance then fuckwit.
‘I was going to put you in charge of the cement shed,’ Hobbes said, earnestly.
‘Cement shed eh? Mm. Big wow.’
‘Are you taking the piss?’
‘Well you started it.’
Hobbes gave Dan a verbal warning. To show him.
‘He was a shithouse that Hobbes. I run into him a couple of times when I met Danny from work for a drink.’
‘Me too. Always went round looking like he had something sharp up his arse,’ Steve said, passing his empty glass to Terry. He continued. ‘On the quiet I think I resented Danny going to Thames. With you it was different. You always were the brainbox; it was expected. But Danny…’
‘I don’t follow,’ Ian said.
‘Like he was jumping ship or something. It pissed me off a bit then.’
‘I had a feeling it did. Remember when we started doing the quiz down here? You had a pop at him that time.’
It had been Steve’s idea to start doing the quiz on Monday nights, as a way of meeting each other half way, of keeping in touch, while Dan and Ian were off changing their minds and losing their places in books.
‘I thought he was throwing it back in me face. When he started coming out with daft answers, taking the piss.’
It was the round where you had to complete well known quotations which started him off. Danny suggested mini-cabbing was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Steve gave him this look. ‘Doesn’t look like they’re teaching you much at Poly.’
Dan folded his hands behind his head. ‘Well, I’m not doing a degree in trivia,’ he said, sounding smug for once.
‘Yeah well. Let’s not have a vote on it.’ Steve ground out his cigarette with short stabbing movements. ‘What is this Humanities anyway? What is it you’re supposed to be learning?’ he continued, softening slightly.
‘You learn a bit about everything,’ Dan said, defensive now.
‘Yeah. Just enough to take the piss out of everything by the sound of it.’
‘You couldn’t stay annoyed with him. I clicked on he wasn’t taking the piss out of me and Terry, just out of things in general, like always.’
Ian nodded his agreement. ‘Besides, he started us all off once we knew we couldn’t win. What were the others? According to Oscar Wilde, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing is...’
‘handy to take shopping. Let’s not ask for the moon...’
‘as a refusal often offends. Blessed are the pisstakers.’
Danny learned it’s no smooth process, yanking yourself up by the roots and throwing yourself towards something else. Socially there were stumblings, surprises, awkwardnesses. People would offer him coffee and apologise that it was only instant; he’d wonder what they were on about. One night, after the pub, sat in a group round someone’s kitchen table, he leafed through a coffee table book of Jackson Pollock paintings. The pictures reminded him of the lino in his mum and dad’s back bedroom. There was nobody he could tell that.
He was liked well enough at college, but was seen as too spiky to fit comfortably. As late as the third year, a lecturer questioned him as to the reason for his near silence in seminars. On the way home Dan thought of a response. He imagined himself explaining that some people have to find a voice they can speak with, while some people just like the sound of the one they’ve got. I’m reminded of a joke that Vic told me. This bloke gets into university late and unexpected. On his first day, feeling lost, he stops a lecturer in the corridor and says, ‘Excuse me. Can you tell me where the library’s to?’
The lecturer says, ‘You’re at university now. And at university we don’t end a sentence with a preposition.’
So the bloke goes, ‘Alright. Where’s the library to, wanker?’
Mostly, Danny sat in his room, chainsmoking, chainreading, the bookshelves in the alcove creaking like the rigging of a ship.
He could look back and trace the changes in himself and his language, the moments when he discovered that epitome didn’t end with a ‘y’, banal didn’t rhyme with anal, enormity wasn’t like enormousness, a refectory wasn’t a canteen, that what an undergraduate was was what he was, that cogent wasn’t the same as coherent, that argot rhymed with cargo and wasn’t said like Argos with a ‘t’. He found out the meaning of those words Scritti Politti used to throw around; hegemony, aesthetics. He stood on London Bridge station with Steve and Terry, as Steve complained about all the pissed-up suits, and knew he was employing synecdoche.
And where had it got him? Working in another shop. Back in the same place, only out of place this time. Apparently it didn’t pay to increase your wordpower after all. On good days he’d think that at least it had opened him up to things. He’d think of his dad, who always pronounced compromise like it was com then promise, com-promise, not because he was thick, but because he never listened to anything anyone said.
Terry returned with the beers. He nodded towards the now empty pool-table. ‘Fancy a game?’
Steve stood. ‘Yeah alright. Doubles?’
Ian paused, his pint an inch from his mouth. ‘Hardly.’
‘Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.’
They don’t bury you at a crossroads with a stake through your heart these days. They buried Danny in Hither Green cemetery. Greyblack sky. Drizzle. On the way, Ian looked up from the driver’s seat. ‘Got the right weather for it.’
There was a short service with a vicar sighing endlessly about Daniel this and Daniel that and who was he again? It was what nobody would have wanted. Afterwards Terry was the only one who could speak to Dan’s parents, beyond a goodbye and a nod. He went over to them, mother in a raincoat, father in a car-coat. Terry kept it short. ‘I’m that sorry, me.’ It was better than nothing. He let his fists unclench at his sides.
Definite Denise, Danny’s definite ex stood for a time and spoke with the remaining three.
‘I’d give you a lift,’ Ian said, ‘but it’s an impossible squeeze with five.’
‘Five?’ she asked.
‘Sorry,’ Ian said. ‘Wasn’t thinking. There’s room.’
Nobody spoke all the way back to Deloraine House where Denise lived. She sat for a minute, not getting out. ‘I’ll tell you a thing I loved about Danny,’ she said.
Ian looked at her in the rearview mirror. Terry twisted round in the front seat to see her. Steve lit another cigarette.
‘You’d talk to him about similar things that had happened to the pair of you.’ She stopped, breathed. ‘Most people, they’d say “I had that happen. It’s like blah blah blah isn’t it?” And even if they got it right you’d think, wasn’t anything like that, who the fuck are you, saying what it was like?’ Denise grabbed a handful of the air in front of her. ‘But Danny, he’d say “Something like that happened to me. It felt like such and such to me.” Then he’d leave it at that and you’d find yourself jumping in and saying “That was it exactly!” Even when it wasn’t sometimes.’
She opened the nearside door and ducked out of the car. She stood for a moment, blinking hard, swallowing, the flat of an index finger pressed above her top lip. ‘I can’t say what it was like properly. Bye.’
She turned and walked towards the stairwell of her block, the only person who’d used the word Danny all afternoon. Ian made to pull away but stalled the engine.
‘Shit!’ He bounced his palms off the steering wheel twice.
‘Shit!’ Steve watched as the white ball bounced twice off the cushion and rolled gently into the middle pocket.
‘Shot!’ said Ian, from his seat.
‘Fucking ought to be,’ Steve said, ruefully. ‘I give up, I can’t concentrate.’ He laid the cue on the table and went to the cigarette machine.
Back in their seats Terry nodded at Steve’s newly lit cigarette. ‘Second packet today isn’t it?’
‘I know. Stress that is.’
‘Yeah.’ Steve started at the Social straight from school and stayed. ‘It’s the management. Wankers couldn’t run a whelk stall.’
‘I don’t know how you’ve stuck it,’ Ian offered.
‘Maybe it’s me,’ Steve went on. ‘You go to work to help people, you come home wanting to fucking gas them. I think I’m losing it. It’s like something’s gone bad in me.’
‘Sounds like compassion fatigue.’
‘It’s nothing to do with compassion. It’s about commitment.’ Steve leaned across the table, jabbing the air in front of Ian’s chest.
‘Alright then. Commitment fatigue.’
Steve leaned back in his seat, smiled faintly. The rigid hunch dropped out of his shoulders. ‘Yeah. That’d be it.’
‘You still doing the paper round then?’ Ian asked.
‘Don’t start on him,’ Terry said.
‘I don’t know what you’re on about.’ Steve's jaw tightened.
‘You ought to, the times I’ve said it.’
‘Yeah. Tell me about it.’
‘You know; neither Washington nor Moscow, neither use nor ornament.’
‘The Party? Going well at the moment as it goes. Got a lot of new members.’
‘What about old members though? You know what they say; in the future everyone’ll be in the S.W.P for fifteen minutes.’
Steve’s head dropped back. He looked at the ceiling, looked back at Ian. ‘Got any new ones?’
‘Actually yeah. I was wondering the other day. You know when you join up and they give you the choice of those two accents, if you’ve already got one of them, do they give you a discount on your subs?’
‘I suppose you were patting yourself on the back when you thought of that one.’
‘At least you’re never going to need to worry about commitment fatigue.’
‘No, I know.’
Mary recruited Steve. It was at the tail end of that phase where they were out at gigs together so often, they were constantly swapping colds from shouting in each other’s faces to make themselves heard. Dan noticed the way Steve kept mentioning his work-mate Mary, how you could have a really good discussion with her. Dan knew before Steve did. Then one day Steve saw Mary in the teabreak, leaning back in an armchair, her feet on a table. For a moment he could picture her lying on a sofa, her feet up on the armrest, an ashtray balanced on her stomach, a mug of coffee cradled in her hand. He pictured her craning her neck to see something unexpected on the telly. He could see himself in the same room. He felt something like relief. Mary politicised Steve with a capital P and a glottal T. Then they married.
‘Sometimes I wonder if that was Dan’s trouble. Like he couldn’t find anything to commit himself to.’
‘Fucksake, that’s you all over that is. It’s nothing about that. I think he just found it hard to...’ Terry stopped, shrugged. Found it hard, perhaps, to just stop still a minute and be able to say, this is my home, this is my work, these are the people I love, this is my place.
‘I said to him one time down here, when he’d started at the bookshop, you ought to read some history, not have your nose in some novel all the time.’
‘Yeah. You said “What use are novels?” He said “They help people work out what to do.”’
‘Only time I’ve seen you speechless.’
‘I wasn’t speechless,’ Steve said, colouring slightly. ‘I was marshalling me arguments.’
‘Fuck off. You went to the bog. When you come out we were talking about something else.’
‘Remember when he was trying to write a novel himself? When he was in the bedsit, before you and him got the hard-to-let.’
‘What, when he was going through his piss-head phase?’
‘That’s it, yeah. You’d go round there and his fridge was chock full of tramps’ lager; Skol Super, Super Tennants, Super Kestrel.’
‘That’s fucking muck that stuff. Like fizzy cough mixture. Does the trick I know, but Jesus.’
‘I can see him now. Stood with a can in his hand, saying “Super Kestrel; brewed by craftsmen from a secret blend of hops, yeast, and sucked and spat out Spangles.”’
Bathed in the light of the open fridge, Danny said how super was an odd choice of adjective. ‘Skol Super; spiffing tipple for the desperate. Eye seigh! Whizzeau!’ he said, bobbling his head from side to side like he did.
Those were difficult times, when his first thought on getting indoors from work, was to wonder how soon he could reasonably start drinking. Perhaps, at the time, it was the only way he could get any stillness or peace. I don’t know.
Danny showed Ian a few pages of an early draft of the novel. He handed it over, saying, ‘I’m modelling meself on early Raymond Carver. Very early Raymond Carver. When he was drinking like a fish, had a shit day-job and couldn’t get any writing finished.’
‘What was it called again?’
‘ “Room at the Bottom.” Top title. Kept rewriting the first paragraph over and over. Used to drive me crazy.’
How did it go again?
Hope writes the plot, experience unravels it. Brian felt like the most underemployed graduate since Shane McGowan’s dentist. There used to be two main escape routes out of the working class; showbiz or boxing. Then these were replaced by education or absolutely shameless arselicking. These days only one of those was working.
‘Then he give up on that one and started another: “sublime oblique gorblimey”, wasn’t it?’
Yes. He only got as far as an opening sentence:
Underneath the skin of the city misery throbs like poisoned blood.
And an odd bit that didn’t fit anywhere: the headlong rush and circularity of a hornpipe, jig, or reel.
‘Wasn’t he talking about adapting some old novel into a musical?’
‘What “Daniel Dedooronronda”? Yeah. I’d’ve liked to have seen that.’
Steve tapped the rim of his empty glass against his front teeth. ‘What about when he decided he was going to do a Ph.D.?’
‘Yeah.’ Ian laughed. ‘What was he like? I saw the proposal; “The impossible dream: H.G. Wells and the Bromley Contingent; the punk ethic and bourgeois liberal individualism’s rhetoric of freedom.” Fucksake. They just thought he was a nutter. Sent it back the week after.’
‘Yeah?’ asked Terry, rolling his empty glass against his cheek.
‘Yeah.’ Ian smirked. ‘Mind you, I reckon he let himself down writing the proposal in green crayon.’
‘Don’t take the piss.’
‘Why not? It’s what he would’ve wanted.’
Danny wasn’t easily discouraged. There were others: ‘Guilt, smugness and chaos; linearity and circularity in contemporary narrative,’ ‘Are you talking to me? The implied reader in “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”.’
Danny could make up that sort of stuff standing on his head; ‘Who’s Virginia Woolf afraid of? Eugenics and the Bloomsbury Group’, ‘Anthony Burgess is dead; where now for the back cover of the modern novel?’, ‘The usual is it? The barwoman as sign in mass culture.’
Ian stood up at last. Steve and Terry rolled their eyes and sighed.
‘Sounds like the cue for a song.’
‘You still into all that, then? Swanning round Kent in a tent, E’d off your tits?’
Lisa introduced Terry to this bunch of chancers who used to hire a marquee and put on pay-parties round the South Circular. She did the backdrops for them with paint she nicked from work. Terry got roped in to do the bottled water stall. He loved those nights. Even though he knew it was mostly chemical, you couldn’t beat the atmosphere; more goodwill and bad dancing than a wedding reception.
‘Not so much. I got caught with me hands in the float. I’m back mates with them now though.’
‘I never fancied it meself.’ Steve burped gently. ‘You don’t want to be up dancing all night with my verruccas.’
‘It was good while it lasted. Getting out there and making things happen for yourself. Like punk all over again.’
‘No. Those days are gone.’
Yes. Those days are gone. That after all was the original point of this yearly drink, this anniversary wake, as Dan had named it. Not just a way of making sure they kept in touch if they had rows or were skint or got married, but a way of remembering the end of something.
Danny once said punk had been like a two year standing jump with a twenty year dying fall. So the hard bit was choosing a date, fixing a point when a feeling set in, when the souring started. Someone at work dragged Steve to see the Cockney Rejects at the Electric Ballroom. Who needed it? You could go to almost any pub in Deptford if you wanted to see a load of thick macho blokes shouting the odds.
When Terry was on the sites he loaned his copy of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ to Fat Ray from the timber place in Catford. Ray returned it on the Monday, explaining he’d spent all weekend playing the album at full blast with the stereo speakers pressed against a dividing wall, to aggravate his new Asian neighbours. Without taking it out of the carrier bag Terry dumped the record in the first bin he passed, and bought another copy on payday. What was going on if people were doing that with it?
For Ian it was when Ian Curtis hanged himself. A Saturday teatime; Buzzcocks on Radio One, in concert. Pete Shelley’s voice, camp and lopsided, said ‘This is for Ian Curtis, who died at the weekend,’ as the band dived headfirst into ‘Strange Thing’. That was how he heard. He bought ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. From habit he checked the inscription on the run out groove. He read the words 'don’t disillusion me... I’ve only got record shops left,’ and his heart sank.
Danny’s choice of date won out; January 14th 1978, the day of the Pistols’ last gig, at the Winterland Ballroom San Francisco. They’d all seen film of it since. The image Dan couldn’t shake off was of Lydon, hanging from the mic stand like a monkey, staring out the audience. Desolate behind the bravado, face white, eyes wide, chin jutting, he looked into the darkness, sobbed a laugh and said, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’
‘I miss all that though,’ Ian said, handing Steve his pint, ‘going out and jumping about.’
‘It’s still legal. I went and see Placebo before Christmas,' Steve said. 'I give you a ring but you were out.’
‘Yeah. Felt ancient though, like I was the only one there who’d stopped growing.’ He stood two thirds of the way back. Placebo came on. Everything surged forwards and upwards like that time at the leisure pool when the wave machine took him by surprise. He felt a depressing impulse to move his loose change to a pocket with a zip. ‘Crowd went spare. Strap bust and me watch come off. I found it after. It’d been stamped to fuckery.’
‘Wish I’d gone. I haven’t been to a gig for about three years,’ Ian admitted.
‘Get loads more women at gigs these days. Noticed that the last couple of years.’
‘Yeah.’ Ian nodded. ‘Since I stopped going.’
‘Probably heard the coast was clear,’ Terry said.
‘You don’t know what it’s like to be out there looking. I’ve been panicking lately. Since Dan I think. I’ve got to pack it in soon. I’m dying on the vine.’
The times in between were terrible now, aching with it, the want always there like tinnitus.
‘You used to seem happy enough chopping and changing. What’s different now?’
‘I don’t know. You change and think you’re getting nearer what you want. And in the end you think maybe all you ever wanted is, I don’t know...’ You still hope you can invent yourself like a character in a story, when all you really want is to be known from start to finish. To say something and have someone flick their chin up and down once quickly, and say, ‘I knew you were going to say that.’
‘I don’t even understand it myself. I used to try and say to Dan about it. He’d just look baffled at me. Well-adjusted sod.’
The three fell silent. Terry looked up, his chin rested on his hand. ‘I was just thinking about Danny and Denise. Whether he ever got over her properly.’
Steve blew two plumes of smoke from his nostrils. ‘Don’t know. Thing I noticed is, he never stopped calling her his ex.’
‘I used to wonder about that,' Ian said. 'I'd say to him, I’m on about four exes a year, you’ve had the same one for three years.’
‘I never worked out why they split up. He always seemed so sorted when he was with her.’
Danny used to talk to Terry about her a lot. He said she was his proof that he was more than a collection of things he’d done, of things that happened. Of course there were the usual other brilliant things too; a snowball fight on Blackheath, doing the Twist in the front room in the nude.
She came to work in the bookshop. She’d just chucked in a job as a proof-reader on 'Hepatitis Weekly'. Who wouldn’t? Danny might have felt himself unclench the moment he met her, but I’m only guessing. Their first night out together, they met in this pub. Danny was late. He walked in, looked for Denise. She was standing by the fag machine looking continental, a stripy shirt, a cigarette, her hair like pouring treacle. The time before the first time they stood on the landing outside her flat, old-fashioned. Not yet, but soon, she thought. Probably next time. She pulled him to her so she could kiss him. He buried his face in her hair and whispered in her ear, ‘Fucking hell. Here I go, look.’
‘I can’t work out any of it,’ Ian said, getting up for a piss.
‘He’s next if he’s not careful.’
‘You reckon? Christ, don’t say that.’
‘He took it extra bad over Danny though, isn’t it?’
‘You see him more than me. I don’t know. I wish he’d find someone and settle.’
‘He tries too hard. All of us have... both of us have seen it, way he is with someone new. Like a puppy watching telly.’
Terry rose to get a round in as Ian returned.
Steve said, ‘What I can’t get over with Dan, I see him in Sainsburys the Thursday before and he seemed really chipper’
They met each other in the cereal aisle. Danny was looking for washing powder. He had a moan about the way they kept moving stuff around in the store. Steve took up the subject. He started on about how it was all a management scam. ‘It’s supposed to make you lose your way looking for what you want, so you end up getting a load of other crap as well.’
Danny stood there with his pisstaking, paying attention, face on. He stopped stroking his chin and gestured at the cornflakes. ‘I know. It’s terrible; I remember when it was all bread round here.’
‘I know he got pissed off sometimes. I used to see it in him. In Kwiksave once, funny enough.’
‘When was this?’
‘Between Poly and the bookshop. I think he felt like his life had gone a bit sideways. He was by the broken biscuits. He goes “Here I am, one of the finest minds of me generation and I’m shopping in Kwiksave. What’s going on?” I said “Could be worse. You could be working here.”’
‘You can’t help thinking, well, was there something I should’ve spotted. Some sign he was going to.’
There was that time when Dan was back in the flat after Denise. Danny was at work, Ian was pulling a sicky. Ian went into Dan’s room to borrow his Time Out. He couldn’t resist having a nose round. He found Dan’s diary. There was only one entry, repeated at various intervals. The entry read, ‘The fool I’ve been and the fool I am.’
‘There was a time I thought I should have said something, but it was awkward,’ Ian said, his index finger pressed below his nose, like Denise that time.
But guilt is not the point at all. I’m not here to dish out blame in neatly wrapped parcels. Who do you think I am, J.B. Priestley? You’ve probably seen that movie. This woman tops herself. Then Alastair Sim turns up and goes, ‘Let’s be having you then. Whose fault was all this? Hour and a half and I’ll sort it.’ If only.
Terry came back with the next round.
Ian said, ‘Fuck all like that movie, is it? The Big Chill. Where all those mates get together because one of them’s died.’ He'd got it out on video the other week. It was an old tape; the tops of people’s heads waved like trees in a gale. He couldn’t watch it all the way through, but the tracking wasn’t the reason.
‘Not that shite with Tony Slattery and all them?’
‘Christ no! What, “Peter’s Friends”? See what you mean though. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing twice.’
Or three times even.
‘I hate that fucking film.’
‘“Peter’s Friends”,’ Steve explained. ‘Imagine all those smug tossers in the same place at the same time. They must’ve had to screen the extras for potential suicide bombers.’
‘No. “The Big Chill”, I’m on about. Kevin Costner’s finest hour.'
‘He’s not in it, is he? I’m getting lost now,’ Terry said.
‘Yeah. He’s the corpse.’ Ian laughed. ‘Why can’t he always play to his strengths like that?’
‘The whole idea behind them films, it’s a bourgeois construct,’ Steve said, slurring slightly.
‘It’s not is it?’
‘They sit round, wringing their hands over whether they’ve sold out their promise, yeah?’
‘Well who gets a chance to sell out? We start off getting bent out of shape by what we have to do, and we just carry on.’
Terry looked at Steve and Ian, and felt he’d been away a long time. He spoke. ‘I have seen it, as it goes. Shite. Their mate tops himself, they’re all gutted, they sit round talking, they feel better.’
‘Yeah. Like it’s a piece of piss.’
‘The worst is when what’s her face plays that poxy song at the funeral.’
“‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”’
‘Yeah. But if you try sometime...’
‘You might just get the exact opposite.’
‘It’s weird the way it gets you. I see “The Dead Zone” on telly. With Christopher Walken?’
‘I was thinking of Danny anyhow because he was into Stephen King,’ Terry explained. ‘Anyway, this bloke’s got E.S.P. and a T.V. bloke’s interviewing him, taking the piss, asking who’s going to win the World Series or something. And Christopher Walken goes “You don’t want to know that, you want to know why your sister killed herself.”’
‘I’ve seen that. Yeah. The telly bloke freaks right out.’
‘I burst into tears when that come on.’
‘It’s just like what it’s like though, the wanting to know.’
‘Maybe there’s no knowing. Aren’t really any proper clues.’
‘Maybe. Maybe some people are just like that,’ Ian said, his voice tailing off. ‘“The world of the happy is quite different to that of the unhappy.” Wittgenstein.’
‘Wittgenstein. It’s a sort of lager, Steve.’
‘I know who he is; I never fucking heard you. Don’t get like that, Ian.’
There was that time. Danny was round his mum and dad’s for the first time since hearing the result of Finals. His dad blew his nose, smiled, and said, ‘I don’t know where you get it from.’
Dan looked at him and said, ‘I didn’t get it from anywhere. I decided I had it, then I made sure I had it.’
His father turned to walk out of the living room. As he turned he said, ‘Don’t get like that Dan.’
He spent the rest of the weekend banging about in the shed.
Shaking slightly, Steve took a sip from his pint and continued. ‘I reckon he’d’ve been better off in the Sixties. If you wanted to move on without shitting on people you could manage it then. That’s all gone since the Seventies.’
‘Somehow I had a feeling it’d be something to do with the oil crisis. You make me fucking die, you do,’ Ian said.
‘Well, honestly. You don’t half like things tidy.’
‘I know that. I know. I had things tidy too.’
Terry leaned between them, placed his hand palm down on the table. ‘Easy. Don’t let’s. There’s no sense to it and no knowing. It’s like a game of Scrabble.’
Terry shifted in his seat. ‘It’s like a game of Scrabble. You could give two different people exactly the same letters and they’d play completely differently. Same with the things that happen to you. Two people could have the exact same things happen, one of them might hack it, the other might end up like Dan. It’s a mystery.’
‘Thank you Forrest Gump. You’ve been spending too much time with hippies. Next you’ll be telling us he topped himself because his yin and yang was all up the fucking pictures.’
‘I don’t know why he did it,’ Terry shouted. ‘You was sharing a flat. You ought to know if anyone did.’
He stood up, slammed his pint down. Beer slopped out of it. A half moon of glass dropped gently out of the rim. ‘Going bog a minute.’
Ian concentrated on dabbing at the spilt lager with a beer mat. Eventually he looked at Steve. ‘He ought to go on “Thought For the Day”. He’s enough of a prat.’
‘I know he is. I’ll get another of these. You?’ Ian said, gingerly lifting Terry’s glass.
‘No, ta. I’m wrecked.’
Ian stood at the bar, waiting, thinking of the only two photos of Danny he had back at the flat. Both had been taken within seconds of each other, outside this pub, a year ago to the day. In the first Dan looked serious, his arms folded. In the next he was laughing.
On the back of the first picture there was now a pencilled instruction to return it to a D.S Flint at Deptford police station. Ian had chosen it to give to the police when, panicking, he reported Dan missing. It was as if they wouldn’t recognise Dan’s body from a photo of him laughing. Even so soon Danny was being rewritten, as the kind of person who’d do that sort of thing, as the boy most likely to.
Terry came back, stuffing his hankie back in his pocket. He sat. Ian nudged the fresh pint to Terry’s side of the table.
‘Oh right. Ta. Sorry.’
‘Yeah. I am.’
‘All I’m saying is you can go on looking for clues ‘til your arsehole heals over and you’d still be none the wiser.’
I think he’s probably right. No need for vulgarity though, is there? But people are fascinated by the why of it all. Partly it’s compassion, but behind that, they’re treating suicide like a disease. They want to know the symptoms to make sure they haven’t got them, don’t get them.
‘Probably,’ Steve conceded. ‘There was a thing in the paper. Some woman from the Samaritans was saying facts don’t kill people, feelings do, and I mean, you’re only ever guessing what somebody’s feeling.’
Steve pulled on his cigarette and thought of Lorraine at work, always laughing and joking, with pure murder in her eyes. And Mr Noonan, who came in on the enquiry counter sometimes; half-deaf, half-blind, on crutches. And happy. Unless he was putting it on. Who knew?
‘The thing is,’ Terry suggested, ‘is to concentrate on the good stuff that keeps you going: love and friendship and sex and laughing and going out dancing and all that. That’s the things.’
‘Question of getting enough of all of them.’
‘Tell you the thing I remember about Dan is when he used to come round mine, in New Cross, you had to tell him to take his coat off and sit down. It was always like he wasn’t stopping.’
‘Now you’re at it.’
‘Looking for clues.’
‘I know. I can’t stop meself.’
Life I find plotless. But I do love a happy ending, don’t you reader? So I’ll try and round this thing off. I could bang on about the glory and the sadness of life’s endless refusal to tidy itself up. Or I could trot out some pithy aphorism; nothing can save us, nothing can protect us, but some things can support us. Something like that. But what are those things? Maybe Terry’s right. Maybe that’s the things.
Or I could go for the popular touch. I could move our imaginary friends to another pub, where there’s karaoke in progress. I could have someone, quite by chance, get up and sing, ‘Danny Boy’. And when it gets to that bit, ‘‘tis you ,‘tis you, must go and I must bide’, I could have the grieving three burst into tears. A bit mawkish for my liking, that.
Whatever. One thing’s certain though. They’re right about that movie, ‘The Big Chill’, the way it makes it look so easy. There are those who leave and there are those who get left behind. In that film, those who get left behind manage, by some effortless sleight of hand, to convert themselves into those who do the leaving behind. And I can’t work how that’s done, to save my life.