Fuck, fuck, fuck. The little green winking clock on the cooker was telling me I should have left eleven minutes ago. Actually, it was saying I should have left fourteen minutes ago, but it was three minutes fast. It was three minutes fast because I had no idea how to change it, and it was winking at me because it had been winking ever since I’d tried to change it two months ago. I’m sure the knowledge required was contained within the manual, but it had never bothered me before. But now it was taunting me. Winking in a knowing way. The shine of the bean-juice flecked hob mocking me.
I contemplated looking for the manual again, wondering where it was that I kept all the important documentation that came with the house. It was in the bedroom, of that I was pretty sure. Or in the lounge, in that faux-leather (fleather? Leatherique?) box. Wink – twelve minutes. Or, rather, fifteen. Come on, Saul, get your act together.
I walked from the kitchen / living / dining room / box back to the bedroom. The contents of my wardrobe were displayed meaningfully on the bed / floor area. I was on my third iteration of essentially the same outfit already. Jeans, t-shirt, cardigan, Converse. I was nothing if not reliable. Except when it came to time-keeping, obviously. I cast my mind back to the previous weekend when I was in the club – had I been wearing this exact same outfit? Would anyone remember? Do I remember?
My mobile click-clicked a text. It was from him – “running five minutes late, soz x”. Fine. He was late too. Although, if he was running five late, and I was already twelve late, he would still be waiting for me seven minutes. See, that GCSE maths did come in handy. Seven minutes was a fine amount of time to wait. And if you’re willing to wait seven, why not ten? I stripped off my top half, and threw the t-shirt into the washing basket where I’d dug it out five minutes previously. A quick squirt of Fabreze and it was as good as new. Kind of. A squirt of aftershave under each armpit had been the cherry on the BO cake.
I pulled on another t-shirt. Was this the one I’d put on first of all? Followed by the grey cardigan which , despite for the past couple of years being fine for young fok to wear, had gradually trickled back into old-man fashion. My dad had one. Not great news. But I was happy with my look and I found it hard enough to decide what to wear as it was without an image overhaul.
Back to the lounge / kitchen / cupboard big enough for a couch and a TV to pick up phone, fags, Oyster card, change, lighter, cash, keys and chewing gum. Where the fuck was I supposed to put all this? I refused to take a bag with me on a date. Or any night out. I am NOT a woman. And it was too warm for a jacket. I stuffed everything into my jeans, and then found myself staring at the TV as clips of babies falling over to the sound of badly canned laughter and Toploader flicked by. I found myself smiling when one kid smashed his head into a birthday cake. But why are the parents filming this other kid sitting peacefully in his high-chair? Do they know he has an inner ear infection and is about to topple over any moment? Will the £250 paid for every clip be enough to cover putting wheelchair access into the house when crippled little Jack can’t get back up? Still, was funny though wasn’t it, and the voiceover made it doubly amusing.
Another mobile-made clickety click brought me back to reality, and into a state of time-panic. Still, I read the text on the way out of the door. Aah, it was Pete. “Good luck on the date babes. In the Brewers if it all goes tits up.” Good old Pete. Always there. Meaning always there for me. And, more literally, always there in the Brewers – gay South London’s answer to the Queen Vic. It’s shit, but when there’s literally no where else to go… So my plan B was in place, should plan A not go to, erm, plan. But I had to get to plan A first. Victoria line was quicker. And the walk to the tube took the exact amount of time it took me to smoke a cigarette. It was like baby Jesus was smiling down on me.
I arrived at the tube without incident. My mind had been crammed full for the walk – inhale, exhale, what would I say when I arrived? Tap the ash, am I wearing the right outfit? Flick the butt, do I go in for a kiss when I get there? I checked my trainers for dog poo – old habit. I once walked a rancid dollop through a mate’s parent’s house and all over the cream carpet. I’m sure the Underground people wouldn’t notice another foul smelling stain on the floor, would they?
Summer had been creeping in, and the days were pleasant, with the nights feeling pleasantly cool. Still, in keeping with logic, the underground tunnels managed to stay about 20 degrees hotter than the outside temperature. Thankfully, my deodorant kept the old under-pits dry, and I could dab away the excess beading on my forehead. If I was a dainty lady, I might say that I’m ‘glowing’. I’m not a dainty lady. I was fucking sweaty. I caught my reflection in the curved window opposite. It made my head look about four feet long and two inches thick. I looked terrible. Nothing I could do about it now.
I fought my way off the train at Oxford Circus. The corridors and escalators were crammed with people and their bags. I hadn’t bought anything new for ages and hated everyone who’d splurged. Apart from that girl walking towards me who looked like she needed to go shopping more than I did – what was she wearing? Was that trendy nowadays? Did I just say trendy? Am I that old? I’m not that old, by the way. Well, I guess that depends who you ask. I’m 29-years-old. 30 later in the year and I’m kind of not bothered by it. Lots of people go a bit mental, write lists of things they must achieve but possibly never will. I’m constantly disappointing myself so have no need to write a list to feel bad. I’ll be turning 30 in the same manner I turned 20 – drunk.
I hit street level and, thank god, a cool breeze. I lit another cigarette – I know, I know, but I was nervous – and turned towards Soho. Another window offered my reflection, this time in a clothes shop that was closing up for the night. It was a massive improvement – I looked lean and my hair looked cool. My head looked almost normal again. Still, this window could be equally warped and I could still be freakishly odd-looking. Maybe there’ll be another mirror on the way. I checked my watch. Still running late. Eek. My lateness stressed me out. Other people’s lateness makes me livid with a rage so purple and black I want to snap bones and crush skulls and stamp on kittens and clench my fists and shake them at the sky screaming “WHY???” Still it doesn’t stop me from being late for almost everything. Yeah, I’m a hypocrite. Anyway, I’d arrived and surprised even myself by not being as late as I’d thought. 12 minutes, to be precise. Which meant he would have been here for 7 minutes. I crushed the cigarette under my foot, popped a mint in my mouth, ruffled my hair – but not too much – and walked in.
The bar was already busy. More shopping bags. Boys in skinny jeans, checked shirts and skinnier than was necessary ties as far as the eye could see. Which wasn’t very far – it was a small bar. I let my slightly shirt-sighted eyes take in the bar hoping for a glimpse of the date, when suddenly it dawned on me. Would I recognise him when I saw him? How would I know if I’d seen him if I couldn’t remember what he looked like? I was incredibly drunk when we’d met the week before. Incredibly drunk. Offensively so. Well, not so offensively that he didn’t want to kiss me at the time, or even see me again this weekend. But maybe he was also incredibly drunk. In fact, I knew he was incredible drunk – we’d had three shots of sambucca together. And two Jack Daniel’s (with ginger ale – I’m no purist). Even if he hadn’t been drinking all night, which I’m pretty sure he had, he would have been drunk by then. Maybe he wouldn’t recognise me? We could both be stood in the bar, right next to each other, waiting for each other, standing RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER, and not know. That would be awful. I decided to focus on looking for people who looked like they were looking for people. Still no one. But maybe he wasn’t looking for me – why would he if he didn’t know who to look for? Oh God. Maybe if I rang him, he would have to pick up his phone. I would see that. Yes. Call him.
I pulled the phone fro my pocket just as it tickled and tick-tocked again. It was him. Shit. Had he seen me looking right through him? He doesn’t know I’m short-sighted. I could say I was almost blind. Yes, that was my excuse. “Dead sorry – train’s delayed. Be there in 10.” Yes! Thank the lord. I was saved. I ordered a beer – bottled, not draught. I can’t drink pints. Too gassy. And, also, there was an incident when I was 19 after seven pints of wife beater, a plate of beans on toast and my parents. It still makes me shudder now. I took the drink outside, found a table near the door, sat down and lit a cigarette. And relax…
I would normally try and cut down the ciggie intake on a first date. I saw that like I’ve been on loads of them. I haven’t. But I think it’s nice to make a good first impression. But as we’d already snogged, been drunk, and chain-smoked half a dozen cigarettes with each other last time we met, I kind of thought I had a green light to be seen smoking on arrival. Besides, it looked cool and all my friends did it.
About 6 minutes later I was concentrating on grinding the end of my cigarette into the pavement – there were no ashtrays, sorry – when a pair of baby blue Converse appeared next to mine, and the owner asked for a light. I started digging in my pocket and looked up – it was him. Thank god – I recognised him. And he was cute. Handsome. Sod it, he was gorgeous. What a fucking relief. I stood up and he took half a step back. Not a full step, though, and I ended up in much closer proximity to him than I’d anticipated. Flashes of us kissing like school kids on the dance floor the previous weekend flashed through my mind and I immediately became sheepish. Not the most attractive thing to become. I sort of leant forward, half for a hug, partly for a kiss, maybe for a cheek brush and he came in towards me at an awkward angle and some horrible coagulation of all three possibilities occurred. We gave each other meek smiles.
“Hi.” That was me. Excellent opening gambit. I could vaguely remember the previous weekend. We were creased up most of the evening. We were hilarious. We were on fire. Now? Now all I could do was squeak out “hi”.
“Hi.” That was him. This situation needed rescuing. Quickly. I did the onl thing I knew how to do.
“Shall we get a drink?” Me. He smiled. Great smile. Lovely teeth. “Come on then. My round.” We walked in. I weaved my way through the crowd of trendy boys, glancing behind me to make sure he was still there. Every time I turned back he flashed a smile at me. He was nice. Nice eyes. Lovely skin. I totally fancied him. At the bar, I arched my feet up onto my tip toes – I’m only a short – and gave my best smile to the harassed barmaid. “Jack Daniels and ginger ale and a…” My mind went blank. What had he been drinking last week? We had a bit of everything. I turned back.
“I’ll have the same as you.”
That’s it. I was in love. “Two Jack and ginger please.”
The bar was loud, so we had to get close to hear each other. The talk flowed as easily as the drinks did, and I remembered why we’d had so much fun the weekend before. HE touched my shoulder a couple of times, and I kept finding myself just staring at him, smiling, as he recounted some story from a drunken night long ago. Every couple of drinks, we’d pop outside for a cigarette – he smoked! – cool down away from the sweaty throng, and talk about the collection of freaks, weirdos and wonderful folk who streamed past us on the street. He was funny – really funny. And he thought I was funny too. At least, he had the decency to laugh at my crap jokes.
Walter, for that was his name – at first I thought it was a bit old fashioned, but actually I’ve decided it was cool. And he was certainly cool enough to pull it off. I just had to refrain from calling him ‘Wally’. Anyway, Walter was a project manager. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he talked about it in great detail at one point. Thankfully, we were both drunk, so he was quite animated and amusing on the subject, and was tipsy enough to find it interesting. He had just turned 30 – I was younger by two years – and was from New Zealand. Maori mum, English dad. So that explained the dark skin and curly black hair.
The sun finally went down behind the Soho pubs and knocking shops and the sky went that nice midnight blue colour that only happens around ten o’clock. So why did I call it midnight blue? Ten o’clock blue. I checked my watch and realised that my vision was a little hazy. In a nice way though. I’m actually a bit short sighted, so my vision’s always a little bit hazy – only in a squinty, ‘what the fuck am I looking at’ sort of way. This was more of a mildly un-focussed daze.
“Do you want to head somewhere else?”
He said yes, and after we necked the last of our drinks, he took me by surprise by taking me by the hand and pulled me through the crowd to the door. Holding hands is weird. It kind of makes you feel all goofy and weird, and warm and hyper-aware of just how clammy your palms are all at the same time. I think I went a bit red. I felt like all the people in the bar were looking at us. It wasn’t a gay bar, and I’m sure some of the guys would have rolled their eyes. I’m sure a couple of girls made “aren’t they sweet” faces at us. I’m sure I smiled a bit sheepishly. Outside, the streets were now packed with quasi-, semi- and totally drunk revellers. In this part of London, they were mostly gay men, but still gangs of women tottered around in ludicrous heels and the occasional angry pissed bloke from out of town hurled inappropriate abuse at a drag queen, unaware that he was outnumbered by several thousand to one. The drag queen just hurled back some caustic abuse, raising a laugh from a gang – a pack? Pride? – of bears drinking pints of cider outside one of the oldest establishments in the area. That soon shut him up.
By this point we’d had out fair share of booze, and the night started taking on that kind of mystical quality that the best drunken nights do. It became just a loud noise of sound and talking and lights and money changing hands over bars. A cocktail bar was the first port of call. It was hideously expensive, but maybe we were both trying to show off a little bit. There was definitely at least one mojito, and something that was set on fire by the barman before we drank them. It was his favourite. I got a severely watery mouth instantly and thought I was going to puke. Thankfully I managed to swallow it back and suggested popping outside for a cigarette.
It was then that we saw the first shocking thing that night.
“Oh my God…”
“What?” I was checking my hair in the window. I turned round to see what he was looking at.
“They’re doing two for one cocktails in that bar that used to be Element.” He was stood with a flyer in his hand. The insanely skinny boy in a luminous green, cropped t-shirt was handing them out as he minced down the street.
“The one with the nice upstairs-y bit?”
“Yeah.” He passed me the flyer and looked right at me. “Shall we go?” He had a very mischievous look about him. It was pretty hard to say no to. So I didn’t.
Walking through Soho was always an… experience. Lots to see. More to avoid. We cut through an alley where too-old hookers in doorways called out to us. I politely declined, and he just waved to them and put his arm around my shoulders. He was obviously drunk. I mean, two public displays of affection the past hour? Maybe he just fancied me. Actually, he was drunk. He tripped over his foot and we went stumbling towards a shop window. It was the bookstore that had a huge neon sign in the doorway saying “GAY VIDEOS AND BOOKS DOWNSTAIRS”. There was a helpful flashing arrow, too.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I was just trying to give my body an extra few minutes to catch up before sinking more booze in the next bar. “Come on – let’s go in.”
“Yeah – I’ve never been in!”
“Whatever!” He punched my arm and laughed. “This is where you get all your dirty videos.” I shot him my most winning smile. Which, to be honest, most probably looks like a constipated grimace. But it worked. We went in. Straight to the basement. And honestly, I’ve never been in there before.
Another point in Walter’s favour – he was really immature. Excellent. We were like giggling schoolgirls down there. The man behind the counter didn’t appreciate it. The nervy mac-wearing guys perusing the books didn’t much like it either. We straightened out faces as much as we could and looked round the shelves.
I’d made my way round from the DVDs to the books – I was looking at some very explicit comic books. Is it wrong to fancy a comic book character? Possibly. I was trying to work out just how wrong it was when he came over.
“Is it too early in the date to suggest this for later?” He handed me a DVD. ‘Pissy Pants 3’. I snorted so hard I thought I was going to hurt my brain. He cracked up and I couldn’t keep noise from escaping. I grabbed the DVD from his hand and put it back on the shelf.
“Come on,” I nodded over in the direct of the miserable looking queen behind the counter. “I think they hate us in here.”
We ran up the stairs together. We didn’t make a purchase.