First published by Notes From The Underground in December 2012
The party was in a disused office block off Mare Street, sound tracked by a legendary Euro-DJ that Simon had never heard of. There had been no invitations and no explicit promotion of the event beforehand. Dunc had found out about it by ear-mail at seven, by ten he had convinced Simon to come and meet him here out East, and by midnight the pair of them had found the venue via a rolling bulletin of in-eye directions sent to Dunc by an unnamed party organiser that they did not know and would never knowingly meet. It was one of those kinds of parties. For ten minutes they had banged on a blood-red iron door at the back of the apparently empty building while chopping their hands against the cold and holding their jackets over their heads to keep dry. Simon became sceptical and told Dunc he’d been sold a dummy, but Dunc was insistent. Simon toe-poked the door one more time, his hands like snowballs in his jean pockets. Another two suspended minutes. And then at last a low grinding sound, like an old, 20th-century elevator descending, and the iron door opening out to what was indeed a works shaft. From inside the car a tall Afro-Caribbean man in a long leather coat gestured at them to enter, which they did. Evening, gentlemen, the guy said as he sloughed closed the grate. He had a BRKLYN accent. This was for some reason not surprising. Actually, it seemed appropriate.
The lift shaft rumbled through the dead storeys, the booming techno growing louder and more visceral as they ascended. The trench coat guy sat on a bar stool by the lift’s door and stared into the middle distance. Dunc looked at the man’s eyes, which had turned a blurred milk white, iris and all. Dunc made an open/closing gesture with his palms to demonstrate to Simon that the guy was reading a book. Dunc and Simon stood side by side in the lift, trying not to grin. This was the coolest thing either of them had ever done. The lift stopped at the sixteenth floor. There, the guy pulled open the gated doors onto pulsing white/blue lights and an arterial beat that made their teeth hum. Simon and Dunc gave the lift guy a manly nod, then ran into the room and onto the dance floor like schoolboys towards a swimming pool.
An hour later they were leaning on a windowsill with a beer in each hand, sweating thinly, meditating on the room. The dance floor was a welt of moving bodies, with the taller punters’ bobbing heads occasionally visible above it. The bar was an equally crowded mess, as rude and baying as the Hard Stock Exchange, full of thirsty males shouldering forward, waving their tenners at the bar people, not waiting their turn. And between the two, streams of young people wandered around, all of them Simon and Dunc’s age or thereabouts, and all of them cool as glass in their carefully careworn clothes and big spectacles.
Dunc turned to Simon. “Seen any New Eton birds in here?” he shouted over the music.
Simon laughed. “Mate, you are not going to pull a New Etonian, not here or anywhere else.”
Dunc half-shrugged, half-smiled. “What can I say? I promised my nan I’d marry up, rest her soul.”
“You’d know if there were any about. They’d have fifteen admirers each hanging off them – even the blokes. Anyway this place is probably a bit beneath them.” Simon drained off one of his beers and jiggled the empty at Dunc. “Shallow waters up ahead, captain.”
As Dunc muscled into the bar queue, Simon sucked on his spare beer and looked out the office window at the skyline over LDN. From this height, the lights of streetlamps and nightclubs looked dinky and festive, and made the city look romantic in a way that it hadn’t felt for the longest time. In contrast, the river was visible as a black absence of light, whose contours were marked by the position of the buildings along its flanks, by the big old bridge at this end of town, and then, further West, by Parliament and the Millennium Eyes. From this high up, Simon could even see the longtrains pulsing in and out of Waterloo from towns across the country, in from Brighton, out to Cambridge, in from LDS. But even at this height he couldn’t escape the sight of rain. It had been coming down for weeks now, not just over LDN but across the whole nation. It had been over a month, for instance, since the sky had been clear enough for advertisers to project onto. And didn’t the public just know about that. Every day for a fortnight the news had been full of dire warnings from business leaders about market collapse if the weather didn’t break – or rather, if the government didn’t do something to make the weather break. Which of course was countered by lame ministerial retorts that the government had no resources to address the ongoing issue in terms of the meteorological slump until business jumpstarted the economy again by doing its bit in terms of advertising. Meanwhile the public didn’t believe a word of it. LDN was the supposed to be the wealthiest city on earth – it was easily the most expensive, anyway. It was the hub of global finance, the home of the googolplectically rich. The flashes of white that could be seen through even this night-time cloud cover weren’t sheet lightning but the after burn of super-jets shuttling super-businessmen between the US and China for meetings, squash games; and the UK got a lick of cream every single time one of those flights passed over her airspace. Bullshit was there no money for decent weather. It was a fucking conspiracy, Simon told Dunc. Keep the little people wet and miserable, hike up rents so they’re too busy working to plan a revolution, and the elites, especially Dunc’s lovely fantasy New Eton dolly, will be quids in.
“You’re spilling beer on my shoes,” said Dunc, righting the bottle in Simon’s hand. “However I would also add: shut up about the fucking weather and let’s see about some of these hipster girls.”
“Ah, come on,” said Simon. “They’re not going to be interested in us either. I’m already drunk, and you, you’ve got a goatee beard.”
“Well we don’t have to talk to them, do we?” said Dunc. To his right on the windowsill was a girl in a very oversized Misfits vest, with blond hair cut into an asymmetric bob, as per. She was undeniably pretty. She was facing slightly away from Dunc, talking to a group of three friends. Dunc got out his phone and held it near the girl’s hip pocket, where a square-looking bulge indicated she kept her own device. Dunc’s phone flashed a dull green as he pointed it at the pocket. A moment later the girl, clearly having felt the thing buzzing with new notifications, pulled it out and read the profile. As she did so, Simon watched Dunc smooth down the fangs of his beard with his fingers, jerk loose his shoulders, put on a friendly smile. The Misfits girl looked at Dunc for less than a second before clapping closed the phone. Then she stood away from the windowsill and drew into her friendship circle, her back to both Dunc and Simon.
“Oh hush now, she don’t deserve you anyway,” said Simon in a mock-Southern US accent.
Dunc spoke to the back of the girl’s head. “Oop. Sorry about that. Wrong number.” Then, turning to Simon: “Right you bastard, watch this.”
Dunc went back to the mass of humans by the bar and Beeped at the backsides and purses of every woman standing there. Then he edged on to the dance floor, Beeping as he went, incorporating the profile-dissemination into his disco moves. He Travolta’d an arm diagonally in 2/4 time, Beeping at people all the while. He spun around on the toes of one foot, miming machine gun fire as he Beeped. By now he was declaring his availability to anyone in range, male or female. Simon watched as all around the room, people made urgent by new media dived into their pockets or bags. (The men were particularly alert to what they thought was incoming amorous info, Simon noticed. A lot of them had been dancing with their phones in their hands the whole time – but to be fair, he admitted internally, so had he and Dunc. The thought disgusted him mildly.) Simon gestured to Dunc that he was going for a piss. Dunc, who was straightening an imaginary bow-tie and smiling aristocratically to the general space around himself, waiting for responses to his Beeps, ignored him.
The urinals were retro to say the least. While he went, Simon’ drunken mind spun, but soon landed on the thought that he was not having much of a time up here, that he never did have much of a time at any party, really. Within a second, though, it had flown again and lit down, apparently randomly, on the memory of Julia, and the realisation that he hadn’t heard from her lately. Breaking up had been the right thing for Simon and her to do – he knew that. The relationship had been going nowhere for a long time. For months it had been hanging around up there, circling on a current of air, just waiting for someone to bring it down and allow its tired but euphoric passengers finally to step down into their new lives. In Julia’s case, that new life involved moving to Scotland and becoming engaged to a media-trained oceanographer. For Simon it had meant staying in the same job and coming home to an empty flat. Most of the time he was fine, but sometimes, sometimes, after a four-pack and a Friday night comedy torrent, Simon would creep into a hole with the old ache and hurt for Julia‘s absence. Pitching to and fro at the urinal, trying to dissolve the little yellow pill in the pan, Simon could feel the dull weight of that low mood leaning into him tonight.
He’d finishing pissing, he didn’t know when. When he looked up, he saw his neighbour at the trough was looking down at his inactive member.
“Almost as handsome as yours, ain’t it?” said Simon, zipping up. On the way out he clapped the guy on the back, kinda hardish to be honest. “You have a good night.”
You had to hand it to Dunc, because his tactic had worked. When Simon saw him again, he was talking to a very young-looking girl back over at the window. Simon guessed she must have been foreign, maybe over from the Continent for the night or something, since she and Dunc were evidently conversing through their phones’ translators. Dunc would say something into his phone then hold it to the girl’s ear; she’d giggle or frown or smile or whatever at what he’d said, then speak her response into her own phone and hold it out for Dunc. Simon knew that’d be the last he saw of Dunc for at least an hour, and that when he did finally return, the girl would have brought over some acquaintance that he – Simon – would have to make effortful translated small talk with for who knew how long. And he just did not have that in him. So Simon just jotted a brief in-eye to Dunc to say he was leaving, and made for the grinding old lift. He took a last look at Dunc on the way out, and saw him give a thumbs-up to the space above his head, acknowledging the text for Simon‘s benefit, wherever he was. Dunc didn’t actually look up from the girl’s face.
You can do anything, so why not do everything? The Tube ad blinked on and off above Simon’s head like a light bulb. It wasn’t even clear what the ad was promoting, consisting as it did of just that one statement, nothing else. Simon stared at the ad without thinking anything about it as such. Then, for a mad minute before the train pulled into KGX, he thought about getting off there, just splurging his wages on a longtrain ticket and surprising Julia up in Scotland. He knew she would like the surprise, especially since she’d done the same thing to him last year soon after the oceanographer had proposed. Simon had been genuinely touched that he was the first person she’d wanted to tell. But when KGX did scroll into view he’d faltered, stayed sat down. The whole thing had suddenly just seemed like too much effort. And let’s face it, he thought, he could hop on a longtrain any time he fancied. He could do that kind of thing any time at all. There was no need to do it right now. Simon bungeed in and out sleep as the old train rumbled through the five stops between here and his home station. In the streets above him, the rain water folded into the drains in muscular coils. Meanwhile, the lives he could have lead and could still lead multiplied like fractals and invisibly shot and arced through everything, everywhere, all at once.
(c) Martin Cornwell 2012