Higher, faster, stronger…

London made me proud last weekend. The Opening Ceremony of the XXX Olympiad was a brilliant celebration of British history, culture and diversity. The passing of the torch and design of the flame were inspired moments. For me, there is always something special about the Olympic Games. I often find myself glued to the telly, celebrating great moments in sports in which I usually have no interest whatsoever. This year, with the Games being held in my own home city, the excitement is greater than ever.

So I’m taking a break from blogging, as I try to juggle work commitments and the Olympics – in the latter case, attending swimming and athletic events, and following the fortunes of Wiggins, Hoy, Adlington, Ennis, Idowu, Bolt, Blake and the other top athletes. The prospect of another record-breaking men’s 100m final, the Games’ blue-ribbon event, has me drooling!

In the meantime, I recommend the blog of my friend Dawn, who is volunteering at the Games: http://dawndenton.wordpress.com

See you all soon!

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Disconnected…

I usually write this blog at home, sitting in the living room in front of the telly. This one is being written over several days in various outdoor places. As I write now, my internet connection has been down for 10 days, two hours and 17 minutes. (That’s why there was no blog last week. Sorry!) Since I’ve got out of bed this morning, I have not read an email, or visited a Web page, or downloaded a song, or sent an instant message. I am coming to you live.

It is just me. Just a guy with a disconnected laptop, lounging on a deck chair in Hyde Park, alone. No little windows will pop up with a friend wanting to chat. No emails telling me how to artificially extend my penis. No bad news about the economy and Syria and reality television. An argument could be made that this is as undisturbed an environment as I have seen in years.

And I hate it. I can’t breathe. I am lost. I am a man without identity.

Here under the trees near the Serpentine, I have set up my outdoor space to reflect my online world. I am speaking to no one. I have put on my music, as loud as is acceptable, and tuned out. There are other people around, but I will not speak with them unless absolutely necessary, even the really attractive ones in hotpants — say, if one of them is on fire or about to eat something poisonous. I made a deal a long time ago that my writing self would be different from my real self, and this deal has required me to make some sacrifices. Social skills were the first to go. Talking no longer happens. I spend a lot of time online for reference and research, so when I am writing this blog, or poetry, or a few pages of what I hope will someday be my debut novel, I am no longer David. I am simply my online identity.

When I am writing, I will only communicate online as well. And I write a lot. So there are these people… people with whom I have discussed particularly memorable past sexual experiences and debilitating hangovers and illicit substances, all on Facebook messenger, or via e-mail and text messages, or over MSN and BBM… these people, I’m not even sure I would recognise their voices.

Watch! Watch! Watch as my tentacles spread throughout the country and, lo, the world! Here I am in London — and now I am in Edinburgh! To New York! To Australia! To Mali! I am everywhere at once. Ding! A missive from Italy! Allow me to join you, weary traveller. I would stay longer, but I must go to Spain! There is sun there, but I have not the time. I am everywhere, but not too long, because there is more and more and more. And it all comes with a soundtrack of my own choosing. Do I want the Stones to accompany me on my journey? Vivaldi? Ella Fitzgerald? How about Bob Marley? Wait, I don’t have the new Jay-Z/Kanye album? Click-click-click-woosh… now I do! Where to next? Where to? And on and on! And on!

And it is now gone. The Internet is down. What the fuck is the problem anyway?

Who am I if I am not an MSN handle? If I am not intothenightlife, what is it I have become? My link to the world, where people create and envision and dream and hope, it no longer exists. It is a Microsoft Word file, empty, cursor blinking, taunting me, type, type, here, no one can here you scream, your life is a vacuum.

Back home… I am venturing to the bathroom. On foot. Shit, remember when I used to shower and dress nicely every weekend morning? I am wearing the only clean t-shirt I have left, and I have not shaved since Tuesday. My head has indents in it, in the shape of the headphones, and my face is pallid, empty … but yearning. I must get back. There is no time. I must get back to my laptop. Perhaps the Internet has returned! Perhaps we are back on the road! Perhaps I am me again!

We are not back. The Internet is still down.

BT has sent around an engineer, an IT gentleman. It is his job to fix this problem. He is from Ireland, has curly brown hair, wears an earring in the wrong ear, and stands about five-foot tall in heels. He looks like a particularly butch Premiership midfielder. He is a nice guy, jovial, upbeat, hopeful. I bet he talks to his parents weekly, at least. He likely has a dog who follows behind him, and licks his face in the mornings, and fetches his slippers. He pays his bills on time, loves TalkSport radio, and smiles and says, “’Ello mate!” to the newsagent when he buys his Sun newspaper every morning. He is telling me he cannot help me. Right now I would like to rip his fucking face off with a staple remover, slowly, meticulously snipping at the edges of the cheeks, under the chin, around the ears, fftt fftt fftt at the hairline, nice little clips all around, and then, yes, we’re ready now, YANK, splurt, splash, all that’s left is a skull with some wet flesh and that earring attached. (So sorry… I watched Red Dragon the other night!) I hope his eyes stay in their sockets. I want him to see what he has wrought.

Help me. I’m lost. I am a broken man, a ghost, a shell, a dead desiccated oyster buried under dry sand. A character in search of a play. A camel in search of a desert. A bone in search of a dog. I have been out there for so long, hiding from the rest of you so well, that the shakes are uncontrollable. Perhaps a drink of water. No, no, what if it comes back while I am gone?

I don’t know what to do. Maybe I could look through old screen shots. Yes, yes, my Microsoft Explorer, if I shift to offline mode, has saved some sites I visited a few days ago. Ah! It’s a Google search from Thursday! A preview of last night’s game! (Didn’t quite turn out as predicted.) Oh, look, it’s a story by a friend of mine — by friend, I mean an email address halfway across the world which belongs to a body I have not met — on a spunky little independent Web site. That story was funny. Remember that story? Remember when you read that last week, intothenightlife? Oh, those were the days. Such memories. Such great times.

Ah, but I am hungry, and I must find more sustenance. Regurgitation will not suffice. The big dog must eat. Connecting to server… connecting to server… connecting to server… sweet heavens, can’t I just connect? Help me connect. I need to connect. I am nothing here. I have no leg to stand on.

Help. Help. Yelp. Yellow. Yemer. Yemen. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. A rat in the house may eat the ice cream. Algebra. Trigonometry. The unbearable lightness of being sad I miss the comfort in being sad two’s comfort but THREE’S A CROWD! THREE’S A CROWD!

Wait, wait… wahey, check it out… what’s that… the Internet’s back! The world has opened again! OK… see you later suckers!

Rum diary

It occurs to me, suddenly, in the middle of Month Four of 2012, that I might drink too much.

I don’t mean that I’m in that Leaving Las Vegas, pints-of-rum-with-my-cereal league, not yet anyway; most of the veins in my face are still, as of now, not visible. I just mean, well, let’s just say that in London there are two pubs whose bartenders know me by name, three by face and one or two others by reputation.

I don’t drink in the mornings, and unless it’s Friday or Saturday (or Monday… or Tuesday…) I don’t drink in the afternoons either. But it’s amazing, in this city, how much one’s social life revolves around alcohol.

After work, I’ll meet a friend or colleague for drinks, or I’ll grab drinks after a movie, or I’ll stop by a party with an open bar, or I’ll stop by for drinks to make notes for blogging about stopping by for drinks.

I don’t think too much of this typically, considering it’s all second nature. The major appeal for me of going to a pub is the social aspect. Except for when the appeal is solitude, which, I realise while writing this, means the reasons I like going to pubs are to be with people and to be alone, which I guess just about covers everything.

Shit, that doesn’t sound good… Tell you what, just forget that last sentence, I’m screwing up my own point, let’s start over…

It’s just that I don’t really think I drink that often, and I never figured those close to me thought I did either. True, when old friends visit me, they often mention that they don’t remember the last time they were this drunk, and then they remember it was the last time they were with me.

I think that’s because their lives are relatively boring, what with their celebrity-handling jobs and random sexual encounters and all.

Anyway, it’s not like I was ever thought of as the class drunk, the guy who has sudden attacks of rage when he has a few too many rum and Cokes. In fact, there was a long period of several years when I didn’t drink at all.

I always considered myself the drinking buddy, the person who was always willing to throw back a few with friends, always happy to lend an open ear to a mate in need of counsel or just someone to talk to. And usually they opened up more after a few beers, or a few shots, or maybe just some ether.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling people are starting to talk. More and more, I’m receiving ominous comments from all corners.

I always remember that when I changed jobs a few years back, my friend Clare complained that she was worried about me leaving because “who will stay out all night drinking with me now?” Now, in my current workplace, I had a new member of staff come to my department asking for me by name. “Talk to David,” he’d been told, regarding a staff social evening at a nearby pub. “He’s hardcore.” Mr New Guy was pleased to meet me because he fancied himself a bit of a boozer and figured he could drink anyone under the table.

So it seems that people have been classifying me as a “heavy” drinker, though, I must say, I greatly prefer the term “accomplished” drinker.

I hit the nadir last week. I met up with the suspiciously seldom-mentioned Kate, and we were out, of all things, drinking, when she, with a straight and really not all that concerned face — well, I think she might have been drunk — asked me, “You’re not an alcoholic, are you?”

When someone who you sometimes think of as a somewhat of an occasional admirer, for whatever sick, sadistic reasons says this to you, you tend to stand up, pay attention and look deep inside yourself.

Or at least you order another drink and laugh off the comment with a pithy, wiseacre comment about the shakes being gone and that’s great, not worried anymore, ha ha, then change the subject to how lovely she looks, yes, yes, quite lovely, and then try not to think about it until it unexpectedly and entirely inappropriately shows up in your next blog, oh my, hehehe.

All this said, I don’t think I have the intestinal fortitude to become a bona fide we’re-all-worried-about-David alcoholic. I think I started too late. I didn’t drink until my 20s — my fellow nerd friends and I always felt that we didn’t “need” alcohol to have a good time. God, how silly and naïve we were.

The first time I ever had a sip was at a party at journalism school at which I literally had rum forcibly poured down my throat while I was already taking medication for a head cold. At the end of the night, if I may blatantly steal a Woody Allen line, I tried to take my pants off over my head. Even then, though, I never really got on the booze bandwagon, and even though I was drinking a bit by the end of it… well, jeez, it was uni, so give a brother a break.

Anyway, I’ve slowed down a bit, even if I have graduated from scraping pennies together for a pint. But, you know, it’s hard in London, hard not to drink. I don’t know how my old housemate Mark, who has never sipped alcohol, could possibly do it; the guy goes to a pub and orders a Coke every time, though, to the bartender’s credit, he always has to say it twice, as if that couldn’t possibly be what he actually said.

I mean, if I gave up drinking, I’d have to give up all the things that drinking allows me to do, like convince myself my conversation is actually interesting… or dance… or karaoke… or, for that matter, sex. I don’t know if I’m willing to make those kinds of sacrifices, even if my reputation is starting to become a bit more soiled than I’d like it to be. There are a million different pubs in this great city, each with their own stories, their own people and their own price for pitchers.

So bring it on, New Guy. I accept your challenge. Let’s just keep it between us, OK? People are already starting to talk…

Summer camp

Did any of you ever go to a summer camp as a child? Could anything better summer camp? For anywhere from one week to two months, whoever you were at home — whether you were the youngest in a family of eight, a nerd with no friends, or just a regular boy looking for a change of pace — none of that mattered. You could completely reinvent yourself because you were with people who didn’t know you from Adam.

Your friends at camp weren’t the type of people you usually hung out with; they were just the guys who happened to be in your group, or the guys you were assigned to activities with. As far as they knew, you were the most popular guy at your school. You could actually be cool, for a week or so.

Gav got married a few years back, and his wedding was about as close to summer camp as this adult will ever get. On the grownup hand, everything was gorgeous, the bride looked ravishing, the food was fantastic, the reception was at this Devon hotel with a stunning, picturesque vista, or something. On the other hand, it was one big huge tequila-soaked party. That’s my kind of wedding.

***********************

Will is American and in some sort of sales. He went into greater detail about what exactly he does the night of the rehearsal, but it was loud at the bar and I couldn’t really understand him. He spent a lot of time on his mobile, though, talking about accounts and end-of-the-month sales goals and quotas and dammit, Joanne, just file the papers, file the freakin’ papers. Will is an excellent golfer, nearly bald, and lives in Philadelphia.

Josh is about to get engaged, I think. I’m told he’s in a serious relationship, and it’s only a matter of time. I couldn’t tell you what he does for a living. Something in engineering, maybe. Josh is a terrible golfer, even worse than me, is rather tall, and lives in Ireland.

That pretty much sums up all the personal information I have on each. Oh, and Will has this really loopy father who wears tweed jackets, writes books on American history, and actually tells knock-knock jokes with a straight face.

And for four days, Will and Josh were as close a group of friends as I’ve ever had.

Will and Josh were the other two ushers. Gav’s brother was the best man. (Isn’t meeting lifelong friends’ siblings a fascinating experience? If my friend Gav had chucked the corporate life and became a long-haired primary school teacher, he would be his brother. It was like Bizarro Gav.) But he brought a date, and, as tends to be the case, he was preoccupied with her most of the weekend. (Gav’s brother aside, considering his girlfriend was pretty and nice, I ask, why do we bother bringing casual dates to weddings? They’re always more trouble than they’re worth.) Will and Josh were dateless, like me. So, essentially, it was summer camp. Three guys, with everything paid for, with endless fountains of alcohol, scrubbed up real nicely and ready to stir up some shit.

Whatever you do when you’re home, when you’re thrust into the decadently formal chaos of being an usher at an out-of-town wedding, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. It’s a world of endless free booze, attractive women in tight, sparkly dresses, and everyone in a raucous, joyous mood. The outside world doesn’t matter anymore.

And it was basically the three of us. Gav was busy, you know, getting married, so we were on our own. Almost immediately, it was us against the world. There was a wedding going on around us, but we were in our own world: three guys, drinking, talking girls, sharing old stories about the groom like we’d known each other forever.

We picked enemies, whether they deserved it or not. Most of the other guys in the wedding party were the brides’ friends, not the groom’s, and we, not to put too fine a point on it, found them insufferable idiots, total snot-nosed kids whom we ultimately labelled “The Yahoos.” We joked about which bridesmaids were the hottest. We sucked tequila shots off the table. We sat in the corner and snidely mocked anyone, really, who wasn’t us. Because we were the only cool ones.

It had the feel of a locker room. To be honest, it was a lot like a sports team, actually, to the point where we even started using sports clichés to describe what made us such excellent ushers. We talked about “giving 110 percent” and “leaving it all out there on the altar.” We stayed up late and blabbed every night. All we were missing was towel snapping.

Hanging out with Will and Josh helped me to understand why people join fraternities. Just a bunch of fellas, causing trouble, being guys.

***********************

The night before the wedding, after the rehearsal, the entire wedding party shambled over to a nearby watering hole and commenced more heavy drinking. Will and Josh settled in with a group of attractive women, of course, and I caught Gav’s eye. After a few shots of tequila, we decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and, the night before his wedding, talked for about two hours, man to man. When we both came to London, around the same time, we were the two single guys with no girls around, ever. And here he was, almost a married man.

You know that point when your friends make that leap into true happiness? When they put themselves in a position where you know they’ve got it, they have it all figured out? When they become a man? That was Gav that night. I’d never seen a guy just grin like that. It was all he could do not to start jumping up and down, twirling about, shouting, “I’m getting married tomorrow! To her! Me! Woooo!”

It was really something to see. I felt honoured to have the opportunity.

***********************

Ultimately, the wedding came and went, we all drank, I had the strange experience with a tennis player, and we folded into the hotel room. I was quite intoxicated and, thanks to my recent breakup, rather depressed.

OK, a lot depressed. By the end of the night, with Josh, Will, Will’s wedding hookup, and another friend in the room, I had decided to lie down on the floor between the air conditioner and the bed because “I didn’t deserve to be anywhere but on the floor, like the pathetic worm I am.” Many of my friends would have left me there, or tried to reason with me, or told me about how they’d had troubles with women too. Not Josh. He walked over and blurted in his Irish brogue, “Jeezus, David, get oop. Christ.” And I did, and we talked for three hours, and he pulled me out of it, and the Ushers reigned triumphant again.

The next day, everybody left to go back to their lives. I shook Will’s hand, then Josh’s. I made them promise to invite me to their weddings, eventually. I’m sure they won’t. I’d be surprised if I ever see either of them again, to be honest. But, for one weekend, we were the Three Ushers. We left it all out there at the altar. We pushed ourselves to be the best. And we drank. Oh, how we drank!

I was chatting with Gav and asking after the other guys a few days ago which is why, perhaps, this whole piece has the feel of a postcard, a note containing nothing but in-jokes that only those involved would understand. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. That’s summer camp.

Jamie Sherwood* is a pussy

*Not his real name, of course...

A friend was telling me the other day that her boyfriend, Jamie, sometimes cries around her.

This was rather stunning to me, and I told her so. Your boyfriend just cries? Like, when he’s upset? She was confused by my questions. I think her perception was that I was feeding her some sort of macho bullshit posturing, mocking him for being sensitive. She was partly right, of course; I did think he was kind of a pussy. (And still do.) But I was more befuddled than anything else. The guy just cries. Seriously?

I don’t cry. I just don’t. It’s not because I’m some tough guy, or because nothing affects me, or because I just lack the ducts. Crying is just not something I do, and I’m not even sure I would remember how if, God forbid, I actually had a reason to.

As a child, I used to cry all the time. If my sister was making too much noise, if my mum made me eat black eyed peas, if I was bowled for a duck, anything was grounds for loud, relentless wailing. My parents weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I seemed like a relatively well-adjusted child, albeit one who tended to attract too much attention to himself, but for some reason, I would cry over anything. My father was the most bothered by this; it’s hard to brag about your honour student son when you have to drag him screaming from the shopping centre because you wouldn’t buy him the toy he wanted.

And then, out of nowhere, I just stopped. I think it’s probably genetics. We’re not a family of criers. I could count the number of times I’ve seen my mother cry on one hand. I think part of that had to do with her job. When you’ve been a nurse, you’ve seen so much sadness or pain on a daily basis that you almost have to desensitise yourself to it just to stay sane. And my father? I’ve only seen him cry once, at his mother’s funeral. We were following the hearse to the graveyard, and, out of nowhere, he just exploded in a brief, violent spasm. It lasted about three seconds. I was too shocked to talk. He wiped his eyes immediately, collected himself, sneezed and mumbled something about “this dust irritating my bloody sinuses.” And we never spoke of that again. Which was, you know, just fine with me.

In the last 14 years, I have cried twice. The first was at my grandfather’s funeral, my father’s father, just a week before I left for London. I had actually stayed rather composed throughout, taking questions and comforting my mum, who actually seemed more distraught than my father did. I was doing fine until I walked up to the casket. The physical resemblance of my father to my grandfather is almost uncomfortable; Dad looked like a younger clone. And I guess I look like a younger version of my father. I stood there, and thought about my father lying there, and then me, and then my son if I ever had one, and I just lost it. My mother started crying too. But, then, like my father, I collected myself, embarrassed, and didn’t cry again for 10 years.

I’m proud to report that I never cried after I split with The American, the one I’d been certain was The One — no small feat, if I say so myself, because I was quite traumatised. After I dropped her off at Heathrow, for her flight back to New York, I headed back toward my home in Surrey on the M25. On the radio came Radiohead’s 1997 song “Exit Music (For a Film),” or, as my mate Richard calls it, “music to kill yourself to.” If there were going to be a time to break down, that would have been it. I was alone. Thom Yorke is screaming in agony. My life had just swerved sharply in an entirely unforeseen direction. But I didn’t. I just sighed and drove home and drank, for about nine months, actually.

It was at the end of that nine months that I cried for the final time. I was in the Caribbean, about to fly back to London, and some friends and I, quite sad I was leaving, decided to spend a beautiful Sunday late afternoon at the beach. Somebody — I could never remember who — produced a bottle of babash. I’d never tried this West Indian moonshine rum before, and it has quite a fearsome reputation, so I was a bit hesitant. It blew me away. A few sips later I was hugging everyone and telling them how much I loved them, saying things like, “We are the only two fuckers on the planet who understand, man.” We walked into the ocean, and laughed and danced and howled at the moon. Somebody lit a little fire, we all grabbed drinks and sat around in the sand. I was in the middle of a sentence about what life was like in London, and how I missed my friends in the Caribbean, when all of a sudden Stacy’s face went sullen.

“David? Oh, David, what’s wrong?” I told her nothing was wrong, I’m fine, I’m just trying to tell my story. “Oh God… I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” Stacy, what are you talking about? Jeez. “You’re crying. Why?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She took my hand and guided it to my face. It came away wet. And I suddenly realised there were tears streaming down my face, and that I appeared to be sobbing uncontrollably. I turned to Stacy. “Whoa,” I said. “I am crying. Crazy.”

I have not drunk babash since, and, um, I can’t say I’m in much of a hurry to again.

So why don’t I cry? I don’t know, actually. Maybe I am trying too hard to be a tough guy. Maybe I’ve become so shallow that nothing can affect me at anything more than the most peripheral level. Or maybe, just maybe… I don’t really have all that much to cry about.

These days, I think the only way you could get me to cry would be to kick me in the groin while peeling an onion under my nose. This confluence of circumstances happens so rarely, however, that I feel I should be safe for a while.

You pussies!

The proper authorities

I spent the night at a friend’s place the other night, and we left for work together the next morning. It’s been a while since I’ve had to do this kind of journey, having surrendered my 90-minute slog from Surrey, just over a year ago, for a two-mile stroll into work every morning. You might think I’m crazy, but riding the London Underground every morning used to provide me with quiet pleasure. Since work is pretty close to the end of Met Line, I usually always had a seat. I’d grab a copy of the Metro, or get out a book, plop down, stretch my legs and kick back. By the time I’d finished with the paper, I was at my stop. No waiting to change lanes, no dickheads blaring their horns, no stressful left turns at busy intersections. I just zoned out, caught up on the news and before I knew it, my ride was over. It was quite nice.

A lot of it depends on what line you’re on, though. A mate lives way out east in Becontree, Essex, and his trains on the District Line can be notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the trains will run smoothly, and he’ll be at work in 45 mins. More often, the underground traffic jam gnarls, and his overcrowded carriage will be filled with grouchy commuters, sardined shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty and cramped, for almost an hour-and-a-half.

The middle-aged women are always the worst. If you’re between them and an open seat, they have no qualms with elbow and shoulder-tackling you to get that seat. They’re sometimes even swearing and belligerent, with a rather frightening don’t-fuck-with-me scowl. It makes me worry about all the future of my female friends. Middle age, I suspect, is not kind to women.

This particular morning, I was running late. My friend kept me company. We had a few things to discuss and I was glad she was there. Sometimes the Tube is too quiet; I’m not the only one who likes to zone out. We hopped on at Woodside Park and swooshed downward, through Finchley, past Highgate, next stop Camden Town. We had talked and argued and laughed the whole time. We were in a good mood.

Like anybody else on the train, the man hadn’t caught my attention. It takes a lot to get me to notice you on the Tube. Usually, you have to be making some unnatural noise, maybe shouting, fiddling with your mobile, snoring maybe. The man was doing none of those.

He made a step toward us, an unusual movement. The train was not crowded, and it was a some way until the next stop. It was a measured, purposeful move. My head instinctively turned away from my friend and looked in his direction. There was nothing remarkable about him. Mid-thirties, light brown hair, slightly balding, wearing a brown trenchcoat, a pressed white shirt and tan tie. He was holding an umbrella, which tapped along the carriage’s floor, like it was a cane. Not a walking stick cane, mind you; he held it like a prop in a silent movie, tap tap tap, as if he were about to toss it into the air and break into song. But he wasn’t smiling, and he certainly wasn’t about to start dancing.

He took another step toward me and made eye contact. You’re not supposed to make eye contact on the Tube. Just one of those things.

As he came close, I noticed he was taller than I thought he was. But, honestly, that was pretty much it. He looked like every other guy on the train, a nondescript nothing, just more background fuzz. He kept coming toward us, focusing on me. It appeared he needed something, likely directions. I’ve been riding the Tube for more than a decade and take a good deal of pride in my mastery of the elaborate calibration of the London Underground system, so I’m probably a good guy to ask.

He stopped over us, a little too close. His eyes narrowed, his lips pursed, and he spoke.

“I want to talk to you about the law. What you’re doing is criminal. You should be arrested. You should know that I will be contacting the proper authorities.” He then shifted slightly to his right and lurked backwards slowly, almost floating, his eyes locked on us, his disgust and fury palpable. He stopped about five feet away, but his glare did not waver.

For a moment that lasted longer than I would have liked it to, I did a little internal inventory. Had I engaged in any criminal activities recently? Was I engaging in any of them now? I looked at my friend, whose look of confusion — not shock, legitimate confusion — presumably mirrored my own. I could tell she was doing her own inventory. She realised about the same time I did that, no, as far as we knew, we were not doing anything illegal.

We were silent for about 10 seconds. Then she spoke, in a whisper: “He’s still looking at us.”

And his umbrella was tapping… slowly.

Not that I’d ever been faced with a situation like this before, but it seemed like the wise thing to do was to carry on as if nothing had happened. I found myself chuckling, as if she had just said something funny, or as if a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time had just played a silly joke on us, ha ha, gotcha. I didn’t dare look over at the man. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I could tell he was still staring.

We began to quietly try to make some sense of what had just happened. She pointed out, with a bit of alarm, that this well-dressed man didn’t appear to be joking at all. I tried to minimise the situation, make her feel more comfortable, let her know she was safe with me. “He’s clearly a nutjob, obviously,” I said. I’m not sure that helped. Either of us.

I was getting off at King’s Cross, but her stop was Camden Town, the next one. We needed to formulate a plan. She suggested we both get off at Camden, and I could catch the next train, but even in my shock, that wasn’t feasible for me. I was running late already. I told her to go ahead and get off like she always would, and if he made a movement to exit the train, I’d follow. As if in a vice, his head remained stationary, fixed on us.

Her stop arrived. I said goodbye, with an eye on the man. He did not budge. She escaped unharmed. I theatrically took out a book I’ve been reading and pretended to study it intently. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Off to King’s Cross. The umbrella continued to tap.

I had a plan of my own. I was carrying the rucksack I take with me everywhere, full of random notebooks and work stuff, and I stealthily unzipped the pouch where I would ordinarily store the book. The scheme: Make it look like I was staying on the train, then, at the last possibly second, throw the book in there and bolt through the exit doors. I’m a London Underground veteran. I knew exactly how long those doors were open.

The train stopped. Commuters filed out. The man did not budge. 3… 2… 1… now. With a flash, I dashed through the doors, onto the escalators. Halfway up, I got stuck behind two chattering students. I twisted my neck just enough to glance behind me. There were four people looking annoyed by the delay up the moving stairs… and then him. He was looking downward now, but, as if sensing the movement, his head snapped up.

Quickly now. I passed the students on the wrong side and whisked up the rest of the stairs around the corner. There is a Costa on the international station concourse and it was a bit crowded. I ducked in and feigned an intense interest in the dairy section. I idled there for about 15 seconds and turned around.

The man was gone. I loitered a bit, then ordered a coffee and left. Looking a bit suspicious, hunched over, paranoid, I shuffled back to escalators to get on the Met Line. My mobile rang.

It was my friend. “Oh, God, you’re OK. What the hell was that all about?”

I had no idea, I have no idea, but I can assure you: the next time I have to commute to work, I’ll be leaving on time, from now on.

New Year’s Resolution

I am known by some of my friends, among other things, as a guy who places far too much importance on New Year’s Eve. It has always been one of my favourite days of the year, one on which my natural inclinations toward drippy nostalgia are not only rewarded, but also expected.

On what other day are you guaranteed, no matter what, to remember what you were doing exactly one year ago? Christmas, maybe. But you often do the same things on that day every year, usually spending time with family and gossiping about that uncle who’s been married four times.

By contrast, New Year’s Eve is a social animal, and your plans change every year. Since there is no real tradition around New Year’s Eve, other than that you’re supposed to do something, it’s a new experience every time.

That we make New Year’s resolutions is one of the most charming traits human beings have. For no other reason than our dogged earnestness and naiveté, we actually believe that we get a new start. We believe that somehow — this time, this year — things are going to be different. They never are, of course, but for one night, we believe. That’s the beauty of New Year’s; it’s not a clean slate, exactly, but it’s close enough for us.

I hear people complain about New Year’s Eve, that it’s always made into a big event that ultimately disappoints, that they feel pressured to have some kind of momentously fun time. These people are sad, really, incredible dullards and whiners. Pressured to have fun? Hey, I’ll take that kind of pressure every time, no problem. I wish I was pressured to have fun every day, rather than pressured to pay the bills, pressured to hold on to my job, pressured to keep my head above water.

If you can’t relax and have fun on New Year’s Eve, well, you’ve got more problems than this blog can solve, so there is no hope for you here.

Anyway, I had this feeling that New Year’s Eve 2011 was going to be a great one. I was hoping that it would somehow involve a particular lovely lady and was already working out in my mind how the night in Camden would turn out. I figured if craziness was going to ensue, there would be no more likely place than there and the stimuli would likely be so much that either I’d have enough material for four books and an opera, or my head would just explode as my body burst into flames. Either way, it would be quite a story.

As it turned out, my mate Matt, the first person I had asked to come along, was the only one to accept. So much for my designs on the lovely lady!

Then two things happened: First, I went to America for Christmas and spent way too much money (things are so much more cheaper there, you see). This made my New Year’s planning financially inconvenient — or, to use one friend’s more efficient terminology, “fucking crazy” — and somewhat irresponsible. Still, that wasn’t enough to stop me.

What was enough to stop me was Matt. I won’t get into too much detail about Matt, since he always gets mad at me when I bring him up in my blog, but let’s just say he’s kind of, well, a paranoid recluse with tendencies toward mania (that shouldn’t offend him).

He called earlier in the week and shared his growing feeling that something horrible was going to happen in London on New Year’s Eve. Namely, “Someone’s going to release nerve gas or something. We’re all going to die.” (Cast no aspersions and draw no conclusions on Matt here, but I’d like make an observation: Anybody else notice the amount of alarm someone has over things like these is directly proportional to the amount of weed they smoke? Just a thought.)

Matt said he didn’t want to go. I attempted to talk him into it — I mean, it was just a few days before New Year’s Eve, and time was a-wastin’ — but he wouldn’t cave, so eventually, I did. I thanked him for his persistence in making me believe he was going to go and, with a sigh, began to fucking freak out about what I was going to do on the night.

I considered just going down to the Embankment to watch the incredible waste of taxpayers’ money on the release of tons of fireworks (and possibly nerve gas) that could only serve to remind London’s homeless why they’re so bloody poor. But no, I was bound and determined to have a good time, and that wasn’t good enough.

So I called Kate. My friendship with Kate is one I haven’t written much about here, since it’s a fairly recent development, pretty complicated and, well, she doesn’t want me to write about her. Kate is a nurse I first met at my birthday party just over a year ago. (I first wrote about her in Happy Birthday To Me) She’s a wonderful person, kind-hearted and loving toward her fellow human beings — I’m curious why she hangs out with me. She was going to be working until 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, but we nevertheless made plans to meet up after her shift and head to the bash in Camden, for which I now had an extra ticket.

It is a matter of great poetic irony — or at least something that kinda sucked — that David, Mr. New Year’s Eve, wouldn’t even start his celebration of the New Year until 11 p.m. But those were the circumstances, and I had to roll with them.

I had a few early drinks at a neighbour’s, then set off towards the city. The goal was to find a pub, quietly have a couple of drinks by myself, then head over to the hospital. We simply had to get to the party by midnight because I’d be damned if I was going to ring in the New Year while stuck on the Tube.

The first three bars I attempted to duck into all had expensive pre-planned celebrations going on, so I grumbled to myself as I walked away from the presumably riotous jubilation inside. Finally, in desperation, I stepped into a Walkabout that had free entry before 9 p.m. For those cultured people who don’t have Walkabouts in their cities, it’s a chain of Australian-themed saloons with little seating and minimal décor, where the floors are always sticky and breathing is often difficult. It was, to say the very least, not where I had anticipated spending New Year’s Eve, but at this point in the night, it would have to suffice.

I walked in — I always feel like I should say I “sauntered” in when I visit places like a Walkabout — and found immediately that, surprisingly enough, it was not nearly as packed as I’d expected. I guess they were on Down Under time, which meant the start of 2012 had already come and gone. But I won’t complain too much, since one of the girls behind the bar was very nice — she even gave me a free New Year’s party hat and blew a kiss at me when I left. And it was soon time to go, and fast. The night wasn’t what it could have been, but there was plenty of time left to salvage matters. I just had to hurry.

I flagged a cab — I was lucky to get the first one I waved at — and we sped off toward the hospital. 11:05 … 11:10 … look out there, drunk pedestrian … 11:15 … we’re here. I sprinted out the car door — at first forgetting to unbuckle my seat belt, causing a bit of unnecessary strain — and screamed toward the automatic doors at the hospital. I peeled through the hallway to the lifts, almost knocking a guy with a walker into the unrelenting path of an oncoming wheelchair, and pushed the up button about 35 times, bang, bang, bang, pounding my fist into the wall for it to reach the fucking first floor already, Christ. Ding. Push the button for the third floor, bang, bang, bang. Door closes, bang, bang, bang. Door opens. Third floor.

Scrambling, I feverishly asked the first nurse I saw if Kate was there, my eyes full of fire and determination. Thirty-five minutes to go.

“She’s down in room 235. You can go down there if you want.”

Not even pausing to thank her, I left skid marks as I flew past. I looked in the room, and there was Kate, talking to a patient’s daughter. She had a look of calm and empathy, as if the frickin’ year didn’t have just 30 minutes left in it, but the daughter was more distraught. I noticed tears in her eyes, and she released a choked-off “thank you” to Kate as she left the room. Kate had been as worried as I was about missing the clock turning midnight, but when she exited the room and noticed me, a symbol of her life away from the ill, she was as placid as could be.

“Oh, hi! Listen, I’ve got a couple more patients to check on, so just go ahead and wait at reception. I’ll be out in a sec.” She then walked down the hall, to room 237, or 243, or something, someone.

And just like that, my tension was gone. Making it to some silly bar for some silly song that no one understands the words to, it all seemed, well, it all seemed as stupid as it actually was.

The New Year is a big deal for most of us, who have the choice of heading to London for chaos, looking for wild orgies in Newcastle, or just having a quiet night at home. But for these people — our sick, our dying — spending New Year’s Eve in the neurological ward of a hospital, December 31, 2011 was just another night, a night you pray for resilience and search for any remaining strands of hope. The residents of room 235, or 237, or 243, didn’t have a disappointing New Year’s Eve; they had no chance at such luck. All they could do, with fluid draining into their bloodstream, as they breathed through a tube in their neck, was gather a small amount of family members to circle around a smelly bed in an antiseptic room and celebrate the fact that they even had this moment.

Only the healthy, the spoiled, the fortunate get to decide which fun place they’ll ring in the New Year at. Not here, not in room 235.

I know this would be a better story if we never made it out of the hospital, if I rang in 2012 by holding the hand of a crippled child and singing hymns. Well, sorry, but we eventually made it to Camden, with 10 minutes to spare. We counted down the last 10 seconds with some band called Stir, we all rocked to an unoriginal but still fun rock version of Auld Lang Syne, and I even had somebody to kiss. But if you ask me how my New Year’s Eve was, I’ll tell you it was the most fulfilling and most memorable one I’ve had in years.

Spent in a hospital, musing about room 235, thankful I had the freedom to celebrate at all, thankful I have friends and family to celebrate it with.

And I didn’t even have to avoid any nerve gas to do it.