“Ugh, what’s the point? Bunch of overpaid pricks,” said Dan, folding the newspaper and swatting the bar as if aiming at a fly. “Another pint of Kastel please Dennis,” he announced, draining the last flat dregs of the previous one, his first of the afternoon.
“Do you have to be so incessantly blokey? You’re like a pie stained Primark checked shirt distilled into human form,” Alex sneered, turning the page of his own tabloid newspaper. “You’re the one reading that crap. Trying to be ironic? You might as well buy a flat cap and be done with it,” Dan responded, with fake outrage. “Irony is a weapon, not a look. Besides, I loathe the broadsheet aesthetic and find the Internet adolescent at best.” – “Loathe? Aesthetic? You’re being extra pompous today Alex,” mocked Dan.
Alex mindfully folded his newspaper and placed it carefully on the bar in a bid to make his friend appear boorish by comparison. “George over there is the very personification of effortlessness and his lack of aim when urinating and subsequent air of ammonia are not something to aspire to. No offense George.” – “None taken,” replied George, smiling at the table behind. “So that’s the choice is it? A poor Oscar Wilde impression or pissing yourself?” Said Dan, raising an eyebrow in sarcasm. “I can assure you that any similarity with genius is accidental and effortless.”
The afternoon sunlight streamed across the room, enhancing the strangely pleasant aroma of stale beer. Dan handed over a crumpled note and sipped the foam from the top of the gas-pocked drink. A brief but comfortable silence fell between them, the kind that only people with a long history enjoy.
“I better slow down, it’s a bit early to be necking drinks,” said Dan, looking at his watch. “You always say that and it doesn’t ever slow you down. It’s not only what a man drinks but how he drinks it that says a lot about him,” Alex said, sipping at his whiskey and coke. “Drinking coke with whiskey doesn’t make you look cultured Alex.” – “Nor does drinking in the White Lion. Drinking their whiskey without coke, however, would make me a fool.” Dan winced as he took a large swig from his pint, “I can’t argue with that,” he smiled.
“The problem with you is your incessant contrarianism. You’ve never had an opinion that isn’t carved out by the knife of another’s,” said Dan, making a gallant attempt to match his cerebral friend and in turn provoke him into a debate. “The problem with you is you have never had an opinion of your own or one with which I can agree. It’s easy contradicting your views; they are copied and pasted from the big book of received wisdoms,” Alex volleyed back, with an air of dismissiveness that he knew would equally incite.
“Contrary to your contrarianism, received wisdoms are not inherently incorrect Alex.” – “Contrary to your cognitive constraints, received wisdoms are almost always incorrect by virtue of the fact they are received without friction. Anything that is worthwhile needs friction. Sex, thought and wisdom itself should not be pre-made by some Ikea flat pack social designer,” said Alex, looking squarely at his friend now. “If sex wasn’t made to fit then we wouldn’t get very far,” Dan giggled, as he always did when the topic of sex was brought up. “But the friction, and therefore most of the pleasure, is in the foreplay and what woman wants a penis that avoids friction? Without friction none of us knows when we’re being fucked.” Alex knew that the mention of sex always put him in a position of strength when debating his old friend. “But consensus, like stereotype, exists for a reason,” said Dan, quickly steering the subject away from the carnal. “Yes and that’s why it should never be trusted.” Alex replied immediately. The predictability of his answer made him wince a little, he’d rather be wrong than obvious. “Spoken like a true adolescent,” grinned Dan.
The conversation paused for breath with both men contemplating the contents of their glasses. Alex picked up the broadsheet newspaper that Dan had folded to look like a plastic dog toy and turned to the back and a half completed crossword. “I hate it when people half fill in a crossword, it’s worse than leaving your car engine running or not recycling,” whined Alex. “Yeah and of course you aren’t at all OCD,” Dan replied, sounding like a put upon wife of many years. “I am not obsessive, compulsion is for the uneducated and seeking order is not in itself a disorder. 4 down ‘titbit’ – 6 letters,” Alex asked in a manner that suggested he didn’t expect an answer. “Well that depends on what it is you seek order in.” – “Right now I seek order in 4 down. ‘Titbit’ – 6 letters,” Alex repeated. “Not everything needs to be ordered, that would make for a very dull world,” Dan said persevering. “I am fine with disorder, as long as I understand how to order it. 4 DOWN ‘TITBIT’ – 6 LETTERS!” Alex said more forcefully. “I don’t bloody know. Nipple?” Dan said with some air of impatience. “Nipple? NIPPLE? It’s morsel you bloody fool!” Alex laughed, breaking into a coughing fit and causing Dan no small amount of embarrassment then concern.
Alex had always been the owner of a weak constitution, even when they were children. Acute asthma made it impossible for him to join in any sports while allergies, which made him appear to be at war with nature itself, meant that he rarely attended school. By the time they reached puberty, something that seemed debatable when looking at Alex, Dan had become a fierce protector of his physically challenged friend and the paternal compulsion still existed into middle age. As he held out his hand to pat Alex on the back he was casually rejected.
Alexander Bayliss was the only son of a neurotic single mother with artistic pretentions. Her smothering and protective disposition naturally inspired disrespect and a ferocious sense of independence in her son, enhanced by the many hours he spent bleeding on playground floors. Opaque skin, gossamer thin hair and a skull that gave the impression it was expanding at its top made him the perfect target for bullies and controlling adults alike. The calmness, cruel tongue and maturity he presented to the world made him appear to be a middle aged man waiting for time to catch up, once it had his body had already moved onto old age.
“Are you OK?” Asked Dan, trying to present the question with an air of casuality. “Yes, yes.” – “Didn’t you say you had some tests last week on your lungs?” It was always difficult bringing up anything health related with Alex, he had spent the whole afternoon wondering how to approach it; the coughing fit presented his best opportunity. “Yes I did, 22 across, ‘Poplar’ 4 letters. Oh for fuck sake, this crossword is as pointless as Sudoku.” – “Sudoku can be quite difficult, I spent at least half an hour on the toilet struggling with a number two this morning,” Dan grinned with a degree of pride. “Is that your attempt at a play on words? Or perhaps a play on numbers? Congratulations Dan, you have opened up a whole new avenue in toilet humour,” Alex sighed. “Besides, Sudoku is insultingly easy.”
Dan thought for a moment, his friend was clearly evading the subject. Years of practice had taught him that the only way to get Alex to divulge information, which he either wouldn’t or couldn’t, was to keep him talking. “Well I find Sudoku difficult,” he said, knowing his friend wouldn’t be able to resist. “And apparently you find having a shit beyond your capabilities but at least that is a worthwhile endeavour. People always confuse difficulty with worthiness. Licking your own elbow, masturbating with your feet and juggling are all difficult but are no more impressive for it.” – “All at once? I’d be very impressed,” giggled Dan, predictably after masturbation was mentioned.
Daieln Auden was the popular eldest child of a large family. Stockily built, he was the sort of kid that always seemed to have a limb in plaster. By nature he was warm hearted, patient and modest. What he lacked in intellectual curiosity he gained socially, people truly fascinated him. Always underestimated, this suited him as he found it led to people letting their guard down, allowing him to filter out those who took pleasure in placing themselves above others.
His friendship with Alex seemed bizarre to most observers, like a You Tube video of a pit-bull and a lizard chasing each other around a garden. That Dan had warmed to this bizarre looking child was not a surprise to those that knew him but understanding what Alex saw in him, almost instantly, is what caused most to tilt their heads.
Alex stared blankly at the newspaper, the silence no longer a comfortable one. He could feel Dan’s concern growing and wanted to avoid any further questions. “12 across ‘Malevolent’ 9 letters,” he said enthusiastically. “Malicious? Is that 9 letters?” Dan said, always hoping to impress. “It does but the 5th letter is a ‘G’ I’m afraid,” said Alex, almost apologetically. “It is technically right though,” he added. Somehow Dan never felt patronised or intimidated by Alex, he had seen what damage that tongue had inflicted on others and the rare shows of empathy, even in the form of awkward sympathy, were genuinely moving to see. “I’m afraid I’m not much good at crosswords,” Dan opined.
“You should give it a try, there are stories in all words. It’s malignant anyway,” said Alex. “I need a pee, order me another whiskey and coke if you’re getting another pint will you?” Said Alex, getting to his feet.
Dan stared at his empty pint for a minute, focusing intently on the pattern of the grain of wood that was slightly magnified through the bottom of the glass. Patterns in inanimate objects become fascinating in times of trauma.
“Don’t look so worried, I can refill it,” said Dennis, who had seemed to appear in front of him like an overweight apparition. It suddenly occurred to Dan that ghosts are always portrayed as underweight, elderly and female. As a society we clearly had yet to cope with the death of anyone under 50. “Untimely,” he thought, “It was the kind of word that was only used in relation to tragedy. Had it always been that way? Was there a time when someone could make an untimely entrance?” – “Hello, anyone home?” Said the cheerful and insistent barman “Yeah, sorry Dennis. Pint of Kastel and a whiskey and coke please.”
Dan stared at the bar stool next to him. They had met at The White Lion almost every week for the last 15 years. Alex had admonished him for missing two weeks while on his honeymoon, saying “Why are you in such a hurry to binge on each other’s company? You’ll be sick of the sight of each another soon enough.” It was the longest they had been separated in the entire 37 years they had known each other. Dan looked at the impression left on the seat by Alex’s skinny frame, it struck him as precious and frighteningly transient.
“That’s how you do it George, make sure you’re finished before you zip the old fellow up again,” Alex said cheerfully, sitting back down and causing the dishevelled looking man to laugh heartily in the way those who haven’t understood the joke do.
“Perfect timing, thanks Dennis,” he said, taking a hold of the glass with both hands and taking a large sip to prevent spillage. He could see his friend’s bottom lip start to go and thought it wise to lighten the mood. “I don’t understand why men have to urinate in a trough while women get their own cubicle. Clearly we are the most homophobic of the genders, it’s asking for trouble,” said Alex. Dan snapped out of his mental slumber, knowing this to be his cue. “Eyes front, no small talk and you are in and out without any problems,” he said cheerfully. “You would say that, you are the physical embodiment of a middle aged, heterosexual, British male. I look like a paedophile who suffered a birth trauma,” said Alex, a little too loudly for Dan’s comfort. “The size of my head I’d say it was my mother that suffered the trauma though, it’s probably why I’m an only child,” he continued, the alcohol clearly beginning to take effect.
“I would say it was the things that filled your head and fell out of your mouth that traumatised your mum, God rest her soul,” Dan said after a little contemplation. “That isn’t an invitation to start ranting about religion,” he added quickly. “I was not going to mention religion, rather I was going to say that if heaven did exist, she is just the type of person who would make the place unbearable. An eternity of torture is far preferable to an eternity of small talk and Jaffa Cakes.” – “I always loved Jaffa Cakes,” Dan interjected, “They remind me of your mum actually.” – “You mean ginger and lacking any taste?” Alex sneered. “Don’t Alex, let’s change the subject,” Dan pleaded. “Typical of you, always take other people’s side. My mother, your wife, God,” Alex said, over intonating each person.
The next few drinks went down quickly, neither of them noticing the sun setting or the creeping effects of the alcohol. Dan, as was usually the case, became quiet and thoughtful, Alex more and more expressive and opinionated.
“…. So that’s why I refuse to give to charity, it’s immoral,” finished Alex, although his captive audience at this point was lost in his own thoughts. “Do you remember Emily Fifield?” Dan suddenly asked. “Emily Fuckfield? Of course. Her early onset puberty inspired the staining of the sheets of every boy in class. Apparently the sales of washing powder went up 225% for three years running at the local Co Op. Always have a roll of toilet paper by your bed, amateurs. Why do you ask?” Said Alex, giving the stage over to his friend for the first time in over an hour. “I found her on Facebook about 6 months ago,” Dan said glumly. “Really? How is she? Let me guess, she got married, pregnant, fat, pregnant, divorced, orange and pregnant again by a man who thinks half a tin of Lynx Africa is suitable preparation for a night out?” Alex said, enjoying the rhythms of disdain.
“Yeah …. No, just listen. She added me after I found her but never replied to my message. It was a simple ‘Hi, how are you?’ type of thing. Anyway, it turns out her husband died a few weeks ago, just dropped dead, out of the blue.” Dan said, shaking his head. “They’d been together for almost 15 years apparently. How do you start again after something like that?” – “You see, this is the problem with Facebook. It’s all fun and games when you first share pictures of friends, cats and poorly thought out opinions but before you know it, you find out a friend is seething racist, cat people are like cult members who aren’t happy unless everyone else is joining in and your ex has moved on and isn’t thinking about you.” – “He died, he didn’t shack up with her sister,” said Dan with a comic frown. “When you’ve been married for that long, death is the ultimate moving on and there is no way he is thinking about her now is there? Anyway, the point is Facebook is nothing but a series of reminders. It’s like a cruel clock that tracks people’s descent into decay and misery,” Alex said, taking another large sip of whiskey. “What I mean is, how do you live again? Every day must be a new grief,” Dan said, his eyes misting up slightly.
“Can you have your existential crisis tomorrow Dan, you’re ruining my drink.” He could see his sentimental friend gritting his teeth and holding back the tears. “Listen,” said Alex, in a more sympathetic tone. “If everything you love will die, you have two choices. Don’t love anything and avoid grief, or understand what grief is. It’s much like anger, it passes and becomes something else if you don’t dwell on it. Melancholy is has a nice glow, wallowing just putrefies the air and is so fucking tiresome. Go do religion if you want to fetishise death. Me? I’m going for a piss then drinking some more,” said Alex, getting his feet a little tangled in the barstool as he got up.
The alcohol had Dan thinking freely, if not clearly. “For 37 years I’ve listened to this,” he thought, “and he’s nothing but a coward that makes barbarous comments to avoid feelings. He isn’t getting away with it anymore, I won’t let him.”
Several minutes passed before Alex returned, each one making Dan angrier. “How many pints have you drunk? 6? 7? And you still haven’t had a piss. What are you a fucking camel?” Said Alex, returning to his seat. “Alex, shut the fuck up.’ Dan’s response took Alex back a little, he had never lost his temper with him before, save for the time Alex got drunk and threw up on his new girlfriend when they were 15. “Clearly you are a camel, you’ve got the hump about something.” – “I’ve listened to your pointed, spiteful bullshit for 37 years and I’ve got something to say for once.” Alex opened his mouth to reply but was immediately interrupted. “Firstly I don’t care if you think leather gloves make me look like a murderer in an episode of Columbo, I like them. I never asked for your opinion on my flat top in 1983 any more than you asked me for my opinion on whatever that is on your head you’ve been sporting for the last 25 years. Do you ever have an opinion that you didn’t express?” – “I’m having one n…” – “I said shut the fuck up Alex.”
“Do ever apologise for anything? Have you ever admitted you were wrong? OK, other than the time you threw up on Tracy but that was only because I made you. Remember when you said to that bloke in the tracksuit and jewellery looked like a walking Chlamydia virus that had been sponsored by Nike? Or the bouncer you claimed looked like a strategically shaved testicle?” – “He started it!” – “That isn’t the point Alex. What about that poor woman in Southend you said looked as if she was carrying a bucket of chicken for a baby and it was possibly twins?” – “OK, that might have been a bit strong.” – “Strong? She was just trying to get you in the ambulance after you broke your leg,” said Dan with incredulity.
“I’ve saved you from about 50 beatings and you’ve never apologised or thanked me once. You’re a selfish arsehole!” – “Have you finished?” Said Alex calmly. “NO! In 1985 I lent you Revenge Of the Mutant Camels. You kept it for 6 months and then when you gave it back the tape had snapped,” Dan continued, looking intently into his friend’s eyes. “So?” – “So apologise,” he insisted. “You want me to apologise for breaking a computer game 30 years ago?” – “Yes I do and as god is my witness you can stuff this friendship up your arse if you don’t.” – “It’s all about camels with you tonight,” Alex quipped. “I mean it Alex, apologise.” – “OK, I am sorry for breaking Revenge Of The Mutant Camels.” Alex scoffed. “Satisfied?” “No I’m not, now apologise to George for keeping saying he pisses himself,” persevered Dan. “Why? He does piss himself and on others if they stand next to him at the urinal,” Alex said, but the look on his face quickly made him realise his friend was not in a jovial mood. “OK, George, I’m sorry for saying you piss like a Catherine wheel and that you smell like a cat litter box” – “That’s OK,” said George cheerfully, with a hearty laugh.
Alex looked at Dan squarely, realising for the first time his friend had been crying. Dan wrapped his arms around him, squeezing a little too tightly. “Thank you,” Dan said, “and now I do need a piss,” he said, turning his face away and hurrying to the bathroom.
The night air hit them like a tide as they left the pub. It had been years since they were the last to leave and it felt invigorating. They walked to the bus stop unsteadily, giggling at nothing and everything, making a three-minute walk last fifteen.
“Two minutes until the bus comes,” said Dan “Awwww, we should go clubbing and find you a woman,” he continued. “That didn’t work 20 years ago, what chance have we now?” Laughed Alex. “Awww c’mon, you never used to be so easily dish …..” Dan’s sentences we’re beginning to be punctuated by burps, “… defeated.” You’ve got a wife to get home to and I’m walking like a giraffe with a sore arse. Besides, here comes my bus,” Alex slurred, his head bowing like an exhausted long distance runner. “Awww, you’ve become so middle aged,” Dan opined.
As the doors opened Alex stepped wearily onto the bus and turned from its step. “Thank you Dan.” – “Wha’for?” Frowned Dan. “For, you know…. Lending me Revenge Of the Mutant Camels.”
Dan’s heart became engorged as Alex turned to make his way down the bus. “See you next week though, yeah? Alex?” He said, searchingly. “Goodbye Dan,” said Alex, his words just escaping before the doors closed.
It felt as if the bus had ejected Dan, the warm air that had escaped from it whisping past him, accentuating the cold that soon replaced it. He was set adrift and made himself weightless with melancholy, hoping the wind might carry him home.
©Copyright Dean Stephenson 2015