2. (Something Like Life)

The walk home passes by in a blur. I rest my chin on Tink’s shoulder as I cling to his back. Every now and then I mutter some half remembered Star Wars quote in a very poor Yoda accent and giggle to myself. Tink suffers me in silence. It’s close to the dinnertime rush, so the streets are packed with people who cast glances at us ranging from amusement to disgust. It’s only when he drops me on my doorstep that I become remotely aware of where I am. 

Tink moves to knock on the door and I quickly manage to grab his arm. He looks at me, sighs, then steps back.

“Steph’ll kill me if she sees me like this again,” I say as I fumble for my keys. “I’ve got to stealth this. Be real sneaky. Quiet like a ninja.”

“She’s watching you from the window, you know?”

I squint at Tink, then at the window where my sister’s face is glaring at me like the visage of God’s wrath through the clouds. My mind immediately thinks of Monty Python’s Holy Grail and I laugh before remembering that I was a ninja. I put a finger to my mouth and shush Tink loudly. The keys are finally in my hand. Fuck knows how. I put them in the lock on my eighth or so attempt, still shushing dramatically the entire time. The door swings open and I pat Tink’s face clumsily as a way of goodbye. Closing it slowly behind me, I tiptoe down the corridor and crash straight into the coat rack, knocking it over.

Steph storms into the corridor, her face red. Part of it is anger, the other a blotchy redness from a heavy cold that’s keeping her out of work. She is wearing a bathrobe and clings to her hot water bottle, swaying as she confronts me.

“You’re drunk again.”

“Excellent deduction, Sherlock. Ten points to Gryffindor!”

“You can’t keep doing this. I said you could stay here if you tried to get your shit together. Being drunk before twelve isn’t getting your shit together.”

I know she’s right, but that just makes me angry. 

“What’s the point? I’ve spent years trying and look where that’s got me. Unemployed and living with my sister. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be like this if things went my way for once.”

“You can’t just keep blaming everything on the world. Everyone else seems to get by as a functioning member of society.”

Her words sting. I grit my teeth. Steph is an accountant, a studious sort of person with a friendly charm and a slightly plump figure that gets called ‘full-bodied’ rather than fat. She has always done well at anything she tried. Then there’s me, the black sheep of the family. Scrawny, cynical, and easily bored. At best I can be called plain looking, and no matter how hard I’d tried as a kid, I found that other people were just more effort than they were worth. If something or someone bored me, I found something else to do. How else do you stay sane? Still, it was a recipe for failure, and everyone knew it.

I don’t answer her. Even in my drunken state I know that I have nothing good to say. All the fight leaves me in a wave and I can feel myself sagging, being pulled down into the blackness of my inner thoughts. I stagger past her and she doesn’t stop me. I can’t bear to see the look on her face, so I keep my head down and stare at my shoes as I open the door to my room.

It’s little more than a cupboard with a bed, but it’s mine. Well, technically it’s Steph’s, so I don’t even have that. The walls are a sickly lime colour, a holdover from the granny who lived here before, and the bedsheets haven’t been changed in months. The back wall is barely visible through a swarm of sticky notes that have been built up over time, each one covered in my messy scrawl. I call them my lost futures. Each one recalls a moment in my life that could have been pivotal, then explores what could have been if I had done things differently. There are hundreds now. Every time I look at them I feel sick. So many points of failure…

I fall onto the bed without bothering to change. This is my life. I exist. Sometimes though, I get the distinct feeling that things would be much better if I didn’t.

Steph’s words haunt me. Does everyone else get by as a functioning member of society? Does Corgi get by on his failed apprenticeship and current unemployment? The old ex-miners and steelworkers that became the detritus of drinking holes? The ever increasing number of homeless on the streets? The food banks buckling under demand? Are we all victims of our own arrogance, or is the world just increasingly filled with fuckups? More likely, the world always had fuckups, but with an exploding population and diminishing job market, the fuckups just can’t coast by anymore. 

These thoughts echo around my head, driving any thoughts of sleep away. I can’t even close my eyes without feeling like the room is spinning. So instead, I stare at the sheets of paper on the wall and try my best not to think about them. I, of course, proceed to do nothing but think about them.

I trace a finger across the paper threads of my life, wondering what decisions could have been made differently to not be laid drunk in my sister’s house on a Tuesday morning, alone, jobless, and miserable. Could I have tried harder? Set more realistic goals for myself?

Having optimism, that was where it all went wrong. Everybody you’re told to trust as a child sells you on grand dreams. They all say ‘Work hard and you can achieve anything’, and ‘Follow your dreams’. Only, the truth is, that’s not how the world works. Everyone dreams of being an astronaut, a famous band member, or a footballer. You can’t have a society of rich and famous celebrities, even if every last one of us had the pure talent and dedication. For ninety nine percent of us, those words of encouragement are the world’s biggest lie. We believe, but can never live up to those beliefs, so are instantly shackled with self-doubt and feelings of failure right from the starting line.

When do you give up? How are you supposed to know when you should pick yourself up and try again or give up and move on to something new? I asked that question a lot, but nobody ever had an answer, so I stopped asking.

I’m so tired. My body runs through cycles where it’s either too tired to sleep, or sleeps too much and never feels awake. Opposing sides of the same coin. I reach for the box of sleeping tablets on the bedside table and fumble with it until two pills rest in the centre of my palm. Vaguely, I wonder how many of those tiny capsules it would take to kill a man, then pop them into my mouth. My hand paws at the table until I feel a can still half-filled with liquid. Several empty cans and bottles clatter to the floor. I wash the pills down with Monster that has become flat. 

My head hits the pillow and I stare at the poorly plastered ceiling above without any real semblance of thought drifting through my mind. My curtains haven’t been opened for a long time, but light still filters into the room, stealing even the darkness from me. The light seems to highlight the sheets of paper on the tiny corner desk. I roll over, then roll over again. I’m pretty sure I could generate enough power to run a small commune with the amount of restless spinning I go through. 

My pocket starts vibrating. I immediately assume it’s a spam call, so am surprised to see that it’s actually an alarm. It was, ironically, alarming. Somehow, it’s already six in the evening. I double check the time then glance at the grey glow that spilled out from the curtains just to be sure that it wasn’t an elaborate prank. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get any sleep. I certainly don’t feel rested. 

Sitting up feels like a Herculean task, so instead I just roll off the bed and slam into the floor with a dull thud. I’m out of bed now, but the downside is that standing up from the floor is even more effort than from the bed. It’s the thought that counts.

Like the evolution of man, I slowly rise from the primal dirt of the carpet and stand upright on my own two feet. I don’t feel up to leaving the house, but when do I ever? As I shuffle past the desk I pause and study the small chess board that occupied the back corner. Nobody ever plays it with me. Most either don’t know how, or simply don’t care. Still, I enjoy playing, so have set up a long running game against myself. It was the match of the century: drunk me versus hungover me. Occasionally, the impartial sober me would observe the progress of the board and wonder what the Hell the other mes were thinking. Somehow it was the drunk who was currently winning after some creative maneuvers that my cripplingly hanging self had been too groggy to comprehend.

I examine the board for longer than is needed. I’m well aware that I’m stalling for time. Having another confrontation with Steph is the last thing that I want right now. I’m smart enough to know not to get caught in a battle I can’t win, and any battle that revolved around my personal failings was certainly something I would lose. I just need to get ready and leave without crossing her path. What happens when I get back afterwards is drunk me’s problem, and that guy was a dick who frankly deserves it.

Wasting time is getting me nowhere, so after a quick check at the door to listen for any sign of Steph, I slip out of my room and make a better attempt at sneaking through the corridor towards the bathroom. From here I can hear the supposedly gentle noise of a chainsaw mowing through a family of piglets that was my sister’s snoring, somehow made more demonic by her blocked nose. I could drive a lorry straight through the house and still be the quieter of the two of us.

The bathroom is clean and clinical, all in spotless white, but it’s still little more than a cupboard. Not even room for a bathtub. That said a lot really. Work yourself to the bone and just maybe you’ll be able to afford paying rent to some rich prick for the use of a property that I can stand pissing at the front door and hit the back door.

I quickly shower then lather myself in enough deodorant to suffocate a small gas chamber’s worth of your chosen minority. Using toothpaste isn’t an option, so I brush my teeth with only water. Alcohol tastes awful after toothpaste, and the way I see it, the alcohol itself is a disinfectant, so will probably kill any bacteria that’s in my mouth. I certainly hope it does, because I’m fairly sure that nothing short of medical grade disinfectant is suitable for washing away the sins of late night kebabs made from questionable meats in even more questionable conditions.

Steph’s snores still reverberate through the house, so I cross back into my room without bothering with a towel. Dressing probably takes me less time than brushing my teeth took. The heap of clothes that are clean has no sense of order, but then neither does my style. I put on the first things that look remotely suitable. That’s the beauty of men’s clothes: almost everything is universal. Jeans and a shirt. Lounging around the house? Cool. Going to a party? Still perfect. I throw on a coat and I’m ready. 

I don’t bother taking my wallet. There’s no money in there, or in my bank account. The food and drinks this morning used the last of my limited funds. Luckily, it’s a house party tonight, so I plan to be a liquor leech and rely on other drunken fucks providing the drinks. It takes me a moment to even remember whose party it was. Tink’s brother’s girlfriend’s cousin. That’s the one. 

There’s a bottle of Jack in the kitchen that I take a swig from on my way out. I need it to prepare myself for the pre-drinks. Any conversation with Corgi requires a healthy level of alcohol in your system to tolerate. Happy that I had nothing worth remembering, I take a sweeping look over the house that will never be a home, then step out the door.

Previous – 1.

Next – 3.

The Girl

Gloria looked up at the moon from her weathered rocking chair on the patio. The cold white sphere cast the world around her in a delicate silver glow like the faelight of her childhood fairytales. The light sparked something inside her, causing her to struggle to her feet. As a child, she had loved looking up at the moon. How had she forgotten that? She found herself drawn back to the past as if by frozen hands that dragged at her, pulling her down into the inky black waters of some unknown lake. 

Her heart raced, but it was an unsteady rhythm that left her gasping for breath. Still, there was something there, deep inside of her, something that was desperate to escape into the moonlight. Thoughts that hadn’t crossed her mind for many years floated to the surface like bubbles in a fizzy drink, leaving her feeling strangely giddish. She had dreamed of flying to the moon as a little girl. Vaguely, she wondered when that dream had died. Had it, or had it just hidden itself away in the dark corners of her mind where that little girl still clung to existence? 

For the first time in too long, Gloria took a moment just for herself. She bathed in the light, breathing it in deeply and letting it soak through to her core. Her skin tingled, and to her fevered mind, she could see her fingers quiver and shrink, receding down to the chubby cocktail sausages of her younger years. The wedding ring melted away, as did all other memories that tied her to the here and now.

She felt the wrinkles that lined her face melt and run down her skin like makeup in the rain. Each year was stripped from her in delicate layers that dissolved in the moonlight then reformed as shining butterflies that fluttered away into the night until the sky was filled with their brilliant forms that outshone the stars. She watched them and giggled. It was a sound that her throat had been unable to make for decades.

As the years were stripped from her, Gloria felt a weight lift from her shoulders, giving her the feeling that she was floating. She had known a hard life, and had increasingly become a hard person. That little girl had long since grown up, but she had also become smaller since leaving childhood behind. She was worn, her existence faded and hollow, a bloated yet empty shell of the person she had always dreamed she would be. No little girl dreamed of being old and alone. None dreamed of washing clothes for pennies each day for decades. None dreamed of a loveless marriage with a fat and balding labourer, or of the early death of that unloved yet central pillar of her life. 

There had been children. Three of them. As a girl she had doted on dolls and spent countless hours caring for her teddies. Reality had never seemed to mirror that nurturing joy and she had found herself a poor example of motherhood. She had been spread too thin to care about her own life, so there had been little spare to pass down. They had all long since flown the nest, their existence compressed down into a single poundshop Christmas card each year. Her eventual funeral would be the longest time they would spend in her presence since they had clung to her dress as children.

No, Gloria was barely a person, and it was a nagging knowledge that always gnawed on the edge of her mind. That little girl had dreamed of love and happiness, of adventure and purpose. In those days she rode the waves of feminism, confident that she could achieve anything she could set her mind on. Reality had different ideas. The poor, naive little girl would be so disappointed in herself. The thought stung. She could feel herself bleeding out from emotional wounds that she had plastered over and ignored since the day that little girl’s smile had faltered and never returned. 

Why should it have returned. Her parents had died in a car crash, and her uncle became increasingly free with his hands. Hardening her heart had been the only way to keep going. Frank had offered her an escape, and even knowing that he wasn’t right, she had clung to that chance. He had been cold, fat, and loved a pint with the lads more than he had ever loved Gloria, but he had been a good soul. Still, the emotional neglect gnawed away at her just as painfully. Shutting away that need for friendship and love had numbed that pain, numbed her, until even her own children couldn’t make her feel again.

Her thoughts all spiralled through the desolate ruins of her memories, greyscale ghosts and fragments of people, places, and part felt experiences that slipped past her like half observed photographs of other people’s lives, her consciousness pulled past them all to the single speck of vivid colour that was the event horizon of the little girl’s grin.

 She realised that she was crying. When had she last shed a tear? When Frank died? No. She had needed to be strong back then for the children. Emotion was a weakness and she had led by example, burying anything human away deep inside herself. Maybe the tears had died with the girl. That innocent caterpillar had cocooned herself away but had never emerged again. She was no butterfly but a perpetual seed of lost potential. 

Her tears ran down her face, ran down the years that seperated Gloria from herself and finally rejoined the salty streaks that stained the rosy cheeks of her past. Like a stream, those two lines connected them, making them whole for the first time. The butterflies flew around them until everything else was lost to sight, enclosing them in their own personal shell of self reflection that pulled past and present closer and closer together.

Gloria stood face to face with herself and felt burning shame wash through her. Eight years old and so full of hope. She reached out a shaking hand, and like a mirror, her past did the same. Identical hands met, yet where Gloria trembled with insecurity, the girl who would become Gloria, or perhaps the real Gloria that this feeble old woman would rise from like scum atop a pond, held out her arm calmly, confidence radiating from her plump pink skin. What had happened to her? Life. It chewed up optimism and spat out the bitter husks that couldn’t be digested.

“I am so sorry.”

The words were little more than a choked whisper but they held a weight and depth that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. They contained a lifetime of regret and cold voids of every missed opportunity, every word ever left unsaid, every tear suppressed. 

Her past didn’t answer. All of her words were already etched into history. There were no words that could make things better even if she could break free and exist beyond a fragment of memory.

The girl didn’t break free. How could she? Instead, she looked her future in the eyes and smiled. If Gloria thought that her four simple words contained her entire life then that smile expressed all of humanity. How could the twitch of muscles, the upturn of lips, say so much? It unarmed Gloria, stripping away her doubt and her sadness. 

Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be…

She had loved that song back then, singing it in off-key tones to her toys as she pretended to put them to bed. The song played now. It didn’t come from anywhere in particular, and Gloria couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t all in her own head. She was the song. Nothing else existed. She mouthed the words and the girl did the same. It wasn’t a song, but a universal truth. The past was the past, and the little girl had already lived her life, would live it forever, and never again. 

Every moment was the past. Gloria became aware that just beyond the cocoon of butterflies stood an unmoving crowd, an uncountable number of Glorias that had lived their passage of life then sank into the memories of the next. They were all her, and she was all of them. Their presence was reassuring. She had always feared that she would spend this moment alone.

The regrets were still there, nothing could change that, but maybe in another life she would do better. Maybe she wouldn’t. It didn’t matter now.

She moved her fingers, interlocking them with the girl’s. Gloria returned the girl’s smile. It felt good to smile. She had forgotten that. The girl squeezed her hand tighter, comfortingly, and Gloria understood. She nodded.

Her past self closed her eyes. Her body began to glow with the same light as the butterflies. She stepped forward and embraced her future, the light outlining Gloria as the two became one. It shimmered then stretched as the butterflies added to the glow. Even the ranks of her every self dissolved and blew towards her like leaves on the wind. Every petal of light swirled around her then settled into position across her shoulder blades until two white wings resolved themselves and stretched out.

Infinity stretched out in every direction. Gone were the crumbling mortar walls of the houses and the tarmac streets, as was the lone bird feeder that hadn’t been refilled since Frank had died. Only the pregnant fullness of the moon remained. Gloria had always looked up at that singular, watchful eye, and had made many wishes upon it until her sense of wonder had hardened and her wishes were transferred to the bottom of wine bottles. Those wishes called to her now.

She fluttered the wings tentatively. Vague memories of first steps rose up from the depths of her mind. She had learned to walk, and had taught others too. Then they in turn had passed on that independence to their own children. Whatever her mistakes, life went on and the world continued spinning. Everything would be okay.

That thought buoyed her. With the confidence given to her by the girl, she opened her wings and stepped forward. She felt young again. Nothing but her true self remained. Everything else had been left behind. They weren’t important. She breathed her final breath and rose into the sky, weightless and free. Gloria flew towards the moon without a care.

1. (Something Like Life)

I watch as the world passes by without me. From my perch atop the old Record Ridgway factory, I can see for miles across the city. The void is calling me. It’s the only thing that ever does. 

I’m just high enough to trigger that strange human urge to jump, but low enough to know that, unless I’m lucky, the fall would only break my bones. Cold stone and corrugated sheeting surround me, rust, broken glass and thick moss covering everything like a post-apocalyptic botanical garden of abandonment. 

I sit on the concrete lip and admire the frescoes of graffiti that punctuate the 1930s architecture. Ninety odd years didn’t seem too long a time, all things considered, but the view from here has changed drastically in that time. So has the world. The men who had worked their trade in the factory below were long gone. My granddad had been one of them. The company was sold to an American firm, and all production moved to China. Sheffield Steel couldn’t hold a candle to Chinese slave labour apparently.

Despite the brooding figure that I may strike, I am no vigilante or prowler of the night. In fact, it’s eight in the morning on a cold Tuesday, and I’m hunched up in a little ball up here with a pounding headache after drinking a full bottle of Jack the night before. Why choose a derelict factory? Why not? I find it a good place to reflect. The factory, like me, is little more than a ghost. 

My manuscript had been rejected by every agent once again, and my healthy coping mechanism had of course been to resort to excessive levels of alcohol. I’m pretty sure that I’d decided to kill myself as the weight of my failure pulled me down into the dark depths of depression, but I’d got distracted at some point by drunken thoughts and ended up building a Lego house when I found an old box of the stuff while searching for a rope. Feeling groggy and strangely reflective, I’d wandered up to the factory when I woke and couldn’t fall back to sleep again. I always end up here when I need to think. Maybe I’m here to contemplate life. Maybe I’m here to end it.

Time always passes in erratic waves up here, as though the weathered stone is caught between two conflicting presents. Look down and the world is a hectic kaleidoscope of colours and movement as thousands of people go about their meaningless lives. Look up and all is a slow churn of blue, white and grey as clouds creep across the skyline, stretching and shifting their shapes subtly, almost unnoticeably. 

As someone who spends far too much time staring at the clouds, and also as someone with what is often insultingly called a philosophical nature, you’d imagine that I’d wax lyrical about the sky. Many poets had. But then, at the end of the day, what even is the sky? A big old pile of nothing. I wandered lonely as a cloud… Ha! Sure. This is England. Every cloud and their mother are up there partying it up. A British cloud wouldn’t know loneliness if loneliness hijacked a plane and flew straight through it.

This mess of idle thoughts is pretty common. Welcome to my mind. Watch the low door frame as you enter and don’t bother wiping your feet as the place is a shithole already. To the right we have alcohol dependence, and down the corridor you’ll find self-deprecating humour and an empty room where I’m told the emotions should have been installed, but nobody ever got around to it. There are cracks in the walls big enough to slide your hand through, and the roof is held on by duct tape. It may not be much, but it’s where my thoughts call home.

“Now then, Quasimodo! Get down here before that ugly mug of yours puts some poor gargoyle out of the job.” 

I sigh, consider ignoring the voice for a moment, then glance down. Corgi wouldn’t go away because of something as simple as me ignoring his very existence. This was a shame, since the cold terror of the void was usually better company than the pudgy excuse for a man that had invaded my sanctuary. 

“That’s not what your mum was saying last night.”

“Really? Your mum jokes? I expected more wit from you. Has the drinking finally killed off your last brain cells? Anyway, my mum’s dead, so joke’s on you.”

“Decomposition produces a surprising amount of heat. A half rotted corpse provides more warmth than my last girlfriend, and the silence of the grave is a welcome change from the usual incessant chatter.”

“Cheery fucker, aren’t you?”

“You know you love me for it.”

“Someone’s got to. If I stop talking to you then nothing would stop you throwing yourself off there.”

“You’ve quite the ego. Who do you think drives me to come up here in the first place?”

I contemplate just how much of a bastard Corgi is as I edge myself from my perch and begin the short journey through the inner ruins of the once proud unit. The tools here had been world famous, the workers well respected, and now it was empty and half flooded, a heaven for street artists and urban explorers. 

It doesn’t take long until I slip out of the factory and squeeze through a hole in the metal fence near where Corgi was waiting for me. We hate each other. It’s really the best foundation for a friendship you can have. It takes effort to hate, so it only makes sense to reserve it for people you can just about tolerate.

I take a final look at the shell of former industrial glory. You can almost see the shadows of the workers, ghosts of a dead age. I find them pleasant company. They don’t buy me drinks though, so I have to turn my attention to less favourable souls like Corgi and the lads.

We leave the factory and weave through streets until we reach the city centre. A fine drizzle is in the air, but that’s nothing surprising. The cold bites at me. It’s nice to feel something. As we walk, we trade small talk, mostly about video games. It’s all we ever really talk about. Most other topics spiral towards depression with surprising speed. Politics, the environment, relationships, careers, or aspirations, all of them are sensitive subjects these days.

The Bible-bashers are out in force today, their signs and stands filled with booklets cluttering the already cluttered pavement. One is set up next to a homeless man. They each ignore the other’s existence. I don’t really get it. I’m no God botherer, but my general understanding is that kindness and charity were the foundations of faith. Yet these guys stand around all day with their signs, oblivious to the real world suffering around them. Give food to the poor, raise money for the homeless, lobby for better education. Hell, fuck off abroad for some charity or other helping out developing nations. Do anything. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t do anything either. But unlike them, I don’t pretend to care. 

Corgi grabs one of the booklets as we pass and leafs through it. He stops at every image of a woman and holds it up for me to see.

“Her?”

“Too old.”

“Her?” 

I consider the picture with the same scrutiny that a fine art dealer would examine a Da Vinci painting. “Passable. Good body. Weird eyes though.”

“Ooh, what about this one?”

“I’d nail that one like Christ on the cross.”

Corgi laughs then slings the booklet into a bin as we pass. With enough boredom, you turn everything into a game. The more bored you are, the shittier the game. Casual sexism roulette is an easy one. Devalue others because you don’t value yourself.

I cheer up a little as we reach our destination. Nothing quite warms the soul like a sign for a J.D. Wetherspoon. I pull open the door and bow theatrically to Corgi as I let him past. The pub is quiet this time of day. Huddled close to the bar are a handful of older men, mostly ex-labourers of one kind or another, who sit nursing pints of John Smiths. They show up every day at nine o’ clock on the dot when alcohol could be served, and stayed there for most of the day. This place was the closest to a home that they had, and it was a sight mirrored in every pub across the country.

Slightly further back than the pissheads are the old biddies sipping their fifth refillable coffee and gnawing at a slice of toast that they had started eating an hour ago. This was another universal constant. 

A young girl is manning the bar. She looks slightly haggard. My expert eye knew a hangover when it saw one. Probably a student. The faces of the bar staff change every time I visit, though they all have a slightly worn quality to them. The key is to mix up which pubs you visit on a regular basis so none of them can get used to your destructive lifestyle and feel pity for you. Variety is the spice of life after all. That’s where the old pissheads went wrong. They became part of the furniture and the staff know exactly how sad their lives are. When your eventual funeral is made up of more Spoonies than actual family and friends, you know you fucked up somewhere.

“I’ll have a BBQ burger and a vodka tonic,” I tell her in a voice pitched low enough to ease her headache. Her eyes seem to thank me. It always pays to be nice, at least when it takes absolutely zero effort to do so. 

“Dude, it’s twenty past nine in the morning,” Corgi says accusingly. His voice makes the girl wince. He has that effect on people.

“Yeah, you’re right. Make it a double.”

“Burger or vodka?”

“Yes.”

“Double vodka tonic isn’t covered in the deal.”

“Better throw in a cider while you’re at it then please.”

She shrugs and taps away slowly on the screen. Corgi orders a large mixed grill, then we take our drinks and settle into a corner table as far from anyone else as possible. I quickly down the vodka then nurse the cider as we wait for the food.

“So how’s the writing going?” Corgi asks me. 

“Well, I’m sat in a Wetherspoons drinking before ten. My spirits are clearly high.”

“Nobody liked your story then?”

“Fuck if I know. That knowledge requires communication. What I get is the cold silence of jack shit. But hey, it was only two years’ hard work. No real loss, right?”

“I don’t know why you keep trying. You clearly aren’t very good at it.”

I’m torn between dry sarcasm and trying to defend myself. I could explain that agents receive hundreds of submissions every week, but that sounds like an excuse even as I think of the words. I’m not sure I even believe it either. Maybe I am just not good enough. That would be more fitting with my usual MO. Sarcasm it is then.

“Tell me again how your apprenticeship went. You know, the one that would guarantee you a job for life? Oh, that’s right! You did unskilled grunt labour for pennies, then got let go the second they’d have to start paying you minimum wage.”

“Point taken.” Corgi looks deflated, and I almost feel sorry for him, but then the food arrives and his emotions instantly bounce skyward. He tucks in and I have to respect his ability to devour steak without wasting time on such menial things as chewing. I return to the bar a few times and start to reach that perfect state where time ceases to have meaning. It’s only when a shadow passes over me that I really look up from my latest drink. 

Three men of varying shades of ugliness are standing over us. In generous terms, they are what could loosely be described as the rest of ‘The Lads’. Tink is a tall fellow with that wide kind of build that isn’t fat or muscular, just kind of there. Larry is scrawny with a shaved head and a sense of fashion that screamed neo Nazi, even though he is soft as a brush and listens to shitty teen pop, while Toto is dark skinned with dreadlocks and an ever present smile.

“Are you boys ready for tonight?” Larry asks, clapping his hands together.

“Yesh,” I answer. I may be drunk. Fuck if I know. A drunk guy should be the last person you trust to make a judgement call about anything.

Toto gathers up my empties and shakes his head. He’s still smiling. It’s vaguely unnerving.

“It isn’t eleven yet and you’ve had three doubles,” he tells me, as if I didn’t know that already.

“And a cider,” I add proudly. “You said we’d do pre-drinks.”

“Yes. An hour or so before we go out. At eleven. PM.”

“PM, AM, easy mistake to make. You’re still going to have a drink, right?”

Toto’s smile grows, showing off his pearly white teeth. “Of course. My round. Though, I think pints will do us for now.”

“Whatever you say, chief.”

I settle further into my seat as Tink and Larry join us around the table. Corgi chats with them about any old bollocks. I’m not really listening. A war is raging inside my skull, the alcohol fueling both sides like the Americans at the beginning of every war. On one hand I was drunk and surrounded by friends with a party on the horizon. On the other, I was drunk and fucking miserable. Part of me wanted to brood, the other part wanted to laugh. My body compromised by hiccuping then slamming my head onto the table.

“You have bad coping methods, my friend,” Toto tells me as he returns with the drinks. This doesn’t stop him from handing me my cider though. Toto’s good like that.

“We can’t all have your cheerful disposition,” I say without raising my head. The words come out mumbled.

“We each hold the key to our own happiness.” 

Toto speaks with a calm assurance. The sentence holds warmth and confidence, enough to convince you that the world wasn’t really all that bad. 

This time I do laugh. 

“All I seem to be holding is cheap alcohol, so maybe you’re right.”

“You are a clever man. Don’t beat yourself up. The world is all too eager to do it for you. Keep trying. All you need is a little luck, and luck is nine tenths probability. Try enough and you have to get lucky eventually.”

I can’t help but to chuckle. Toto is that rare breed known as an optimist. To him, the glass is always half full, even if it’s being smashed over his head. Not that anyone would dare to try that. He has an intimidating presence that’s at odds to his nature, kind of like Larry, except Larry is as fearsome as a wet bit of bog roll, while I have no doubt that Toto really can fuck a man up. With him and Tink, we lesser mortals have a nice shield between us and any threats that our drunken antics might incur on any given night.

“I wish I had your optimism, mate. Maybe it’s easier to be happy when you’re a cheery bastard. I’m preconditioned to see the worst in everything. Frankly, I think you’re a naive idiot living in a dream world of rainbows and ignorance. But hey, you know what they say: Ignorance is bliss.”

“You are wrong,” Toto says, his eyes suddenly hardening in some undefinable way. “You take the easy path. To be negative is simple. It’s optimism that takes real strength. You call it naive, but to see pain and think you are powerless to make others’ lives better is what’s truly naive.”

We all stare at him wide-eyed. Even I find myself speechless, and that’s pretty damn uncommon. It’s Larry who finally speaks up after taking a large gulp of his hipster real ale.

“Bloody hell, you two. Without drawing the obvious race card, why’s it always have to be black and white? Middle of the road. That’s where most things live.”

“Why would anything live in the middle of the road?” I snap. “Bloody stupid place to live. You’d get hit by a fucking car, dickhead.”

Toto’s eyes soften again and he breaks into a booming laugh that instantly lifts the mood of the room. Well, our moods anyway. The crones scowl at him with that thinly veiled racism that English grannies have mastered. 

Tink drains the last of his lager and stands up. Watching him stand is like watching a deckchair unfold. 

“Right, lads! That’s me done. I have to pick up Tommy then run errands before getting ready. I’ll see you all tonight, yeah?”

“Yeah, yeah!” Corgi chips in, his metaphorical tail wagging excitedly. “A good party is just what we need. Some drinks and some pretty girls. It’ll help us all forget the shitshow that is our lives. It’s going to be great!”

I don’t even have the energy to stamp on his heart and tell him no women will spend a second in his company. The alcohol is hitting me hard now. I’ve passed the equilibrium and am on the rough side of the curve. I try to stand but can’t.

“Agreed!” I nod. “I just need to cool off for a bit first. Anyone fancy carrying me home? It seems my legs have forgotten how to be legs.”

Tink and Toto exchange glances. Finally Tink shrugs. “Fine. Just don’t throw up down my collar again.”

Next – 2.