Standing in a pub having a terrible time. A series of questionable decisions have brought us this far, to that irretrievable point where you are incapable of having a good time, but where something drives you on to make a success of it. Not to pretend; nothing so contrived. Self-delusion maybe.
We buy more drinks, drown the swell of irritation in a numbing fizz of spirits and make small talk, but it feels stilted and unnatural. The sensible thing to do would be to cut our losses and leave. Convince ourselves and each other that we’ve had a wonderful time, part company with a half-hearted, embarrassed hug and send a reassuring text the following morning about how enjoyable the evening was, how we simply must do it again sometime soon.
But that doesn’t fit the pattern. Surely the obvious answer would be to pump more money into the problem, buy more drinks we guzzle too fast, stand around bobbing awkwardly to the music, and get more and more tired and more and more frustrated. The drink doesn’t work either. Any fool can drink all night and talk nonsense, but it takes a special kind of aggravation to immunise you so completely against the effects of alcohol that you stand resolutely sober amid the thumping of the music and the hum of the crowd.
Sometimes it just doesn’t work. A change of drinks maybe? A dependable measure for greasing the wheels and slipping seamlessly back into sociality. The hard stuff will usually subdue that self-conscious echo in the otherwise crowded room. Usually; but not today. Change to whiskey. Change to gin. Nothing will work when you’re in this mood.
It could have been avoided, of course. Long-standing plans always carry that element of risk. How excited we were when we arranged it! How enjoyable it was going to be! How we were looking forward to it; until tonight at any rate. Then the night arrives and it’s a bit chilly out, and I’m still a bit hungover from yesterday, and television and a bag of kettle chips and a glass of wine seems too tempting. But a plan is a plan, so here we are.
Here I was anyway. Waiting is part of the process, but it never used to be this way. Five minutes either side was standard operating procedure, and everyone turned up more or less on time. Mobile phones have a lot to answer for, and I get the text – you know the one – that text at the time we’re supposed to meet saying that you’re just leaving.
Just leaving? Surely you knew half an hour ago when you should have been leaving that you weren’t ready to walk out of the door. So I wait, and order a drink, and play with my phone. Then I play with my phone a bit more and prop myself up in a corner. Winning a table would be difficult. I could get one, but could I sustain my occupation? Jealously guarding your stake in a table is always a challenge, but guarding it single-handedly against large groups is difficult to justify. And the drink makes you want to go to the toilet just slightly less than the drive to occupy yourself with something to do for three minutes other than play with your phone. So the table doesn’t happen; something else to add later to the mounting list of regrets.
It is not difficult to disguise my annoyance when you arrive, you are full of apologies, naturally, but I deflect them amiably and pretend I have just got here too, whilst making a point of sucking the last, noisy dregs of my melted ice through a straw I’ve been strategically chewing for twenty-five minutes. You don’t appear to notice, which is slightly more annoying than your lateness, but the flicker of annoyance I feel is more directed at myself for letting you get away with it.
The queue for the bar does nothing to recover the situation. It takes about six minutes to elicit a short sparkle of recognition from the ridiculously attractive barman, then a further two minutes to get served once my presence is acknowledged. I pay three pounds sixty-five for a single squirt of vodka that comes from a high-end brand bottle I didn’t ask for, dribbled over a tiny glass full of enormous ice cubes, then topped up with coke from a tap which is clearly running low on syrup. I am not pleased, but who could complain once the attractive man has moved on to other patrons? The moment has already passed, and no-one wants to look cheap in front of the attractive man.
So here we stand, music I don’t recognise playing in the foreground. Background music is a thing of the past, and our stilted conversation comes a distant second to the indistinct, generic and highly sanitised commercial R’n’B that bleeds out of the speakers and swamps my breezy humour about how alright it is here. It is impossible to talk normally, discourse becomes limited to bland, general statements in simple language; humour, nuance and delivery are lost. Given effective booze or a better disposition, you could crash through this barrier and find comedy therein, but neither is forthcoming. It’s just not happening; you try to make it happen, but it just isn’t going to work.
How much longer can we endure this? Can an early escape be enacted without causing offense? Don’t feel too guilty however, the thirty minute wait absolves you of some of that culpability. Use the hangover card; it’s an easy, convenient and jovial conversation and gives you carte blanche to leave whenever the hell you like. Plus there’s the added bonus that it’s actually true.
Plant the seed, drop the idea in the percolator and let it dissolve for a while. Let it soften the blow when you check out early. It does the trick- after one more drink, one more trip to the toilet, I’ve played the ‘maybe one more’ card and I’m on the home stretch. Ironically, once reaching this point we seem to achieve some kind of synchronicity; the conversation starts to flow and the music improves. We find humour in the general crappiness of our surroundings and relate it to other various disappointing dives we’ve haunted in the past. It doesn’t salvage the evening, but it is nice to part on a high note. We save that last trickle of our drinks for an inordinate length of time, and down them only when we decide it’s time to go.
Our departure is not awkward, and we go our separate ways with a joke and a hug that conveys genuine affection. It’s only as you drift off to the bus stop and I start my long walk home that I realise the last of my tactical errors. Rather than walking home later, in relative peace, I now have to pick my way through the dilapidated town centre besieged by the eleven thirty drinking crowds. It’s that awful time of night when people are thinking of moving on elsewhere, getting out additional cash, getting rejected from cocktail bars and clubs and congregating on the streets rowing and working out what to do next. It is the in-between time.
I navigate my way through several minor swarms, keeping my head down and cursing myself for needless anxiety. They’re just people, after all; out for drinks, having a good time, laughing and joking with their friends. Why does it have to be so intimidating? Why that low, heavy feeling of suppressed fear and self-reproach. It burns away inside me as I scurry past, trying to look busy, or late or trying, against hope, to look like I’m not frightened and on my own.
I get asked if I have a spare cigarette. I unaccountably apologise for not smoking and shrug hopelessly. Does anyone ever have a spare cigarette? Here we go young man, I never planned on smoking this one. Help yourself...
Across the street, outside a questionable fried chicken outlet selling dubious fried chicken, a group stands illuminated in the dazzling glare of fluorescent lights, screaming at one another. A young woman is shouting and swearing at what I can only assume is her boyfriend, calling him a fucking bell-end, and punching his arm. He laughs at her and appeals to his friends with a derisive smile, which enrages her further. Her friend tries to steer her away and reminds her that he’s not worth it. I remember where I am and turn my head away, lest I become involved, and continue to hurry forward. Their altercation continues to echo down the street as the woman fires off a few final salvoes about his size and sexual performance as her friends drag her away. The boys all openly laugh at her as they saunter away in the same direction as me. I quicken my pace.
Despite the busyness of the high street at night, there is a period of relative calm. Couples and small groups drift past, people walking and texting despite the late hour – I hate to have my phone out in this part of town, especially when walking alone. I am nearly out of the woods, as the takeaways and pubs start to thin out and give way to closed shops and residential buildings. Only one hurdle remains, up ahead. A similar gang of young people walking between one pub and another pub, stopping to piss in someone’s doorway and struggling to light their fags in the breeze. My first flicker of concern surges as I imagine the troupe behind me crossing paths with the mob ahead of me. I imagine all the highbrow fun their exchanges will no doubt entail, and hope I am not caught in the crossfire. So lost in this fantasy am I that I am quite taken aback when, as I draw near, I hear an enthusiastic shout of
“Alright gay boyyyyyy!” in a cheery, self-congratulatory tone.
Here it is, the panic. And the decision; what to do?
Well, obviously, say nothing. Head down, ignore, pretend nothing happened. Then endure as it burns inside you and you curse yourself for your weakness as you shuffle past and silently condone their disdain. But what else is there? A snappy, sassy remark? A clever comeback?
That will take a while to stoke. And will possibly result in a broken nose and three fractured ribs. How do they even know? I’m only wearing jeans, trainers, coat - I’ve left my rainbow cape at home. How do they tell? What would a straight person do? How would they respond to a mislabelling?
Shout fuck off, probably. Can’t really do that- will probably result in two broken noses and five fractured ribs. Oh shit, I’m drawing level, they’ve moved out from the side of the pavement to directly in front of me. They are laughing and subjecting me to mock affection. It could be worse, then.
“Give us a hug, gayboy. Aww- go on!”
I pretend smile and pretend laugh as if I’m in on the joke, when actually, I’m screaming inside. The forcible hugger has his arms outstretched as I approach and braces himself for the bizarre street cuddle, much to the amusement of his friends. I keep myself calm and still the terrified teenager within, fix my faux amused smile rigidly to my face and step to one side and say with a laugh:
“No, you’re fine. Carry on.” And keep walking. His friends explode in laughter at his rejection and I don’t slow my pace. He shouts out to me as I speed up, something indistinct asking why I don’t fancy him. More laughs, but I have got away with it.
The tension drains out of me, leaving me with the nasty, hot feeling borne of being made a victim. I despise them for being so horrible, for not caring how they make people feel, and for being so in control of the situation, then I experience the hollow, dull ache of despising myself for letting it happen. For not challenging it.
It is impossible to leave alone, and I ruminate endlessly, rehearsing what happened, replaying the events and fantasising clever, quick responses which eluded me at the time. It should be easy to move on, but as soon as one rehearsal draws to a close, I hit replay and relive it afresh. It shouldn’t be like this. I tell myself I handled it well. It could have been worse, and given the situation, I played it sufficiently well to avoid a beating.
I tell myself I was lucky. It could have been worse. It was booze-fuelled jocularity, not aggression, not confrontation, and I was lucky. But deep down I know I shouldn’t consider this lucky. It shouldn’t have to happen at all. I shouldn’t have to feel threatened and I shouldn’t be cast as victim for the entertainment of street drinkers.
I shouldn’t have to avoid a beating.
The walk home is long and slow and cold, but the shame stings in rising cycles as I remind myself to keep thinking about it. I want it out of my head, but can’t leave it alone. I want to tell people what happened, and rid myself of it by talking, but I never want to tell anyone. Telling people makes it real and gives it power.
I hide it away and forget about it. Keep it as a horrible, poisonous secret. Add it to the others. Bury it and pretend it’s not there.
Until next time.