One more for the road…

The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.

I had made a financial mistake.

I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.

I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.

In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.

But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.

My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.

I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:

£1.74 in change.

A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)

Half a box of cat food.

Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).

One package of digestive biscuits.

That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.

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One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.

There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?

From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway.  This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.

I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.

Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.

That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.

Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.

I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.

Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.

Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.

It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.

As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?

If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.

But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”

I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.

Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.

“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”

They had. It was most wonderful.

This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.

Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.

Peace with inches…

I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.

There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.

These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.

Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.

But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.

And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.

Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:

(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.

Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”

And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.

In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.

I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.

So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.

I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?

But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!

The post-match report

Some friends of mine and I have a game we play any time we all go to a party together. We don’t really have a name for it – it definitely needs one – but we pattern it after the television coverage of a major sporting event.

A big football match is the most apt corollary. When the game is on television, the channel showing it inevitably carries hours of pre-match coverage, featuring countless commentators looking at the major storylines heading into the big game. Which player must have a big game for his team to win, which manager is most likely to have a go at the fourth official, which poor bastard is the most liable to miss a sitter at a crucial moment. Then, when the game is over and the plot has played itself out, the same commentators gather to dissect every aspect of the contest, who played well, who didn’t, so on, poring over every little detail, singling out amusing or critical points, the ones that will be remembered, the ones that will go down in history and/or infamy. These analysts have studied the game in and out, beforehand and afterwards, and they know every move, every player, every strategy, every technique, and why it mattered, why it was important.

In our party game, we’re the commentators. Beforehand, we chatter about who’s going to be there, what kind of parties the host usually has, what time is appropriate to show up, laying out the plotlines, who’s going to avoid whom, who’s going to try to hook up, who’s going to sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. But the real fun comes in the post-match report, where we connect the dots of all the people we know, reflect on what we’ve learned about them, gossip and chatter and mock people and venerate others and, namely, try to make some sense of it all. We’ll go on and on.

Man, Mike really was drunk tonight. Katy’s boyfriend is a bit of a moron, isn’t he? I hadn’t noticed, but Dan seems to have gained a little weight since he quit smoking. It’s good to see Joe and Rachel so happy. Gives you hope, doesn’t it? Greg’s such a socialite. You can just wind him and watch him go. Can you believe Karen was there? I haven’t seen her in years. She looks great. What’s the name of that one guy, the tall one with the stupid hair and big nose? Jeff, that’s right. I can’t believe I got stuck talking to Andy for so long. One of you guys should have saved me. What did they put in that cocktail, anyway?

The chatter is alternately catty and admiring and self-centred and idiotic and everything that’s great and tragic and pointless and hysterical. It is our common language, brilliant commentary that only we understand. And these people, my friends, all those who play the game and those who use the Average Formation Map to describe their moves… these are all people in my circle, in my tribe, the ever-widening and contracting coliseum of my life, and their lives, the ongoing story, the never-ending jam session. A bunch of clamouring cicadas, bumping into each other, making connections, drifting apart, supporting characters in everyone’s Oscar-winning role.

That’s what it is, actually; it’s an ongoing play we’re constantly rewriting, crumpling pages that didn’t work out right, starting anew, but always, always, writing on. And what keeps us going are our friends, those who know us, those whom we irritate and love us anyway, the ones, when the city goes dark and you’re adrift and can’t contact anyone, you naturally, seamlessly gravitate back toward. The ones who take you in and hand you a drink and ask you how your sister’s doing. The ones who tell the same jokes over and over. The ones who can’t keep a relationship going and can’t figure out why, even when it’s obvious to everyone else. The ones who are always there. They are your family. There’s no other word for it.

Look at that friend you emailed or texted just now. What connects you with that person? How’d you meet them? What keeps you two connected? Do you even think about it? Do you even need to? It’s as natural as breathing, the background static that we don’t notice but keeps the phones working, the lines open, the trains running on time. Without them, we are vapour, wisps, a record with no needle. They make what we’re doing matter. They are more than a crutch; they are our very spine.

Several years ago, I spent some time in Miami with two old, old friends who had just got engaged. My then girlfriend accompanied me, and I did what I could to describe her beforehand, what she liked, what mattered to her, why I liked her… what they should expect, essentially. We spent the weekend, and she left a day before I did, leaving the three of us with one last night.

That night, we bought four bottles of wine, turned on some music and had our post-match report. They know me as well as anyone does; they know where all the bodies are buried, better than I do, really. They compared and contrasted her with women in my past, placed her in a certain context, pointed out how I had changed over the years, why they liked her, why I looked happier than I’ve looked in a while, and then off we went. We told old stories, sure, but it was not merely wistful reminiscence. They’re as current as they’ve ever been. They know me the way I know them; from a genuine, kind place that just can’t wait to see what will happen next. It was our story, and we were telling it. We were getting it wrong in places, we were jumping to conclusions, we were exaggerating details for our own amusement… and we smiled and laughed and felt eternally at home. Which is where we were. Which is where we are.

It is a treasure to have all these people in my life, both old and new. I am so lucky. Allow me this moment to tell them: Thank you.

Idiot box

When I first moved to Surrey, back in the early noughties, my apartment was the most popular meeting spot for all my friends. True, its location was convenient, but in those days it didn’t have much furniture and anyplace you might want to sit, if it wasn’t piled high with books or junk, was covered with a sticky film of dust and week-old pizza cheese. Look, what do you want from me? I was a single guy, living alone. If a girl was coming over or something, I’d always make sure to scrape the worst of the stuff off the walls.

But people always came by. Whenever we had a party to go to, everyone would gather at my place for drinks beforehand. Whenever anyone wanted to grab a few beers and chill out after work, good old Lansdowne Road was the perpetual destination. Why? Because I was the only guy who didn’t have a television.

It was a revolutionary concept to a group of people weaned on television. Rather than just sitting silently in a room staring at sports highlights, or cooking shows, or wild animals procreating, whoever came was forced to actually speak and interact with each other. We’d just grab some drinks, put on some music and just chat all night. And people loved it. Everyone remarked on how much they enjoyed coming by David’s place, and, I assure you, that never happens. No one could really believe it; not watching telly was not only productive, it could be fun.

I wasn’t trying to make any statement by not having a television; I just didn’t trust myself. With my telly in the front room, I was spending a frightening amount of time falling asleep on my sofa to reruns of ER. I’d just started writing more, and every time inspiration would hit, it would be all I could do to avoid the narcotic of Die Hard sequels on Channel Five. Eventually I just sold the damn thing; it was like removing a tumour. Shortly after that, I started writing my first novel, and I haven’t stopped. But now I have a TV again and the old habits are creeping back.

Of course, these days, everyone has Sky Plus or something like that. A friend of mine, a doctor, often works nights and wakes up about noon. After breakfast, he flips through all the night’s programming — specifically sports and Sky Atlantic shows, among my personal vices as well — sets up exactly what he wants to record and then goes to work. When he comes home, he watches all the night’s events, at his own pace, until the wee hours of the morning. Then he goes to bed and does the whole thing again. What’s bad about this is not that television appears to be ruling his life; what’s bad is that any of us, including me, would likely do the exact same thing.

I have Sky Plus, myself. I got rid of the movie channels over a year ago and kept all the sports. Still, included in my package are several Lifetime affiliates and, as of earlier this year (woo hoo!), Sky Atlantic (aka HBO UK). Now anytime I want to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Sopranos, it’s all there. This is not good. This is bad. This is trouble.

I had a long week and have been putting off writing this piece, mostly out of exhaustion and, um… lack of electricity? But now, I’ve sat down to do it, in front of the TV.

I’m watching golf on the telly right now. It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but either I’ve got older and more boring or golf has become considerably more interesting since I last paid any real attention to it. It’s very soothing, golf… shit, watching golf is better than actually being outside… let’s see, what else is on…

A man just told me how, when he got genital herpes, he decided that wasn’t gonna stop him from living his life. (You go, guy!) Dave (the channel) is showing Friday the 13th, Part VII. (Stay out of the woods, people!) Ozzy Osbourne appears unable to articulate syllables while singing at some outdoor gig. (Um, isn’t Ozzy a professional singer? Does anybody believe this act anymore?) OMG, Newcastle’s Joey Barton just got slapped by Gervinho of Arsenal… wow, Sky has an on-demand service that lets you watch porn ANYTIME… ooh, look, Kate Winslet is nude in a movie again… that’s wild that you can chop all that salad so easily…

Usually, writing a piece for this blog takes about an hour, maybe a little more if I’m feeling particularly windy. This piece, written on a laptop in my living room, in front of the telly, took me seven hours. Sky Living is running a marathon of that Monk show, you see. There’s three hours, right there. (That little dude always gets his man!)

How anyone gets anything done these days, honestly, I have no idea.

We are all actors

The most useless piece of advice anyone can ever give another person is to “be yourself”. Be yourself. Just… Be… Yourself. This is bullshit of the highest order. I can’t think of a single function in life where just being yourself is appropriate. Someone once told me before a big job interview to relax and be myself. I told them that, all things being equal, the truest incarnation of myself would be frolicking nude in a vat of rum and Häagen-Dazs ice cream with The Saturdays with calypso and 80s rock bands blaring out on endless loops. When you boil it all down, that’s probably the closest I can come to self-actualisation.

My friend didn’t want me to be myself. My friend wanted me to lie. And why wouldn’t she? If everyone actually listened when people told them to just be themselves, society would crumble. Except maybe France. France might survive.

Truth is, 95 percent of every conversation I have is bullshit. I doubt you’re much different. From a staff meeting at work to conversations with a girlfriend to intellectual discourses on whether or not football should introduce goal-line technology, it’s all almost entirely bogus. This is not to say that I am constantly lying. I am not, or at least not at a blistering 95 percent clip. It’s just to say that human nature dictates that we keep most of what we’re really thinking to ourselves and limit our actions to what other people will find acceptable. My boss once mused aloud in a meeting, “What’s the world coming to?” The response that immediately came to mind was, “Internet porn, mostly!” but, of course, what I actually said, stifling a grin and shaking my head seriously, was “Hmmm. Tell me about it!” You see, every conversation has an agenda, whether it’s to get laid, to order a steak or just not to get fired. We are only talking to get us through the conversation so that we get can back to being lost inside our own head.

More accurately: We are talking so that people will see us the way we would like to be seen. That image above, the one with me in a rum-soaked ice cream bath with Frankie on one side, Molly on the other and Rochelle and Oona… well… as pleasurable as it might seem, that’s not the way I’d like to be known. Frankly, it might have been a mistake to even mention it. No, no, I’d much rather you see me as the chilled-out Londoner, the one who means well, the one who remembers your birthday, the one who jumps around all excited when he sees you, the one who wants you to remember him fondly… what a great guy, that David. I’m constantly playing the role of David, and depending on whom I’m talking to, the role is played by a different actor.

If I’m at work, I’m the quiet, affable hard-working gent just trying to do his job and be left alone. With a girlfriend, I’m the loyal, funny, sweet guy who wants her to be happy. With my male friends I’m just one of the lads, watching sports, downing shots, checking out the girls and making fun of everyone we know. With my parents I’m the stable kid they don’t have to worry about too much. Am I really all of those people? Absolutely. In sections, parts of my personality, I’m a segment here, a segment there. It’s not like I’m lying to them. I’m just giving them each a part that’s appropriate for the situation. You do the same thing. It’s like a bookshelf you prominently display in your flat; it’s not like you’ve actually read all those books. You just want people to see your books and think something about you without you telling them. Umberto Eco next to Bill Bryson… he’s so well read! I’m whatever I need to be at that moment. I’m whatever I want you to want me to be.

Stick with me here. You have to know what I’m talking about. Surely, the conversations you have with your parents are dramatically different than the ones you have with your significant other, just like those are different than the ones you have with your close friends, just like those are different than the ones you have with your work colleagues, and on and on. You’re shifting on the fly. You know when you get a phone call at work from someone who wants to talk about something personal and you’re not comfortable taking the call next to the nosey lady in Accounts? That’s two worlds colliding, right there. Which one is the real you? The easy answer is to say the personal one, but which role do you spend more hours a day playing? At what point does the performer become the individual? Does it even matter?

You know what we are? We’re Voltron. Anyone remember Voltron? You had five little robot dogs, or something, they were metal, that I remember, and you’d piece them all together to make one monstrous Super Voltron. The little pieces fit together, each part representing something small but vital. No. I don’t like the Voltron analogy, though it really was a great toy. How about those little Russian dolls, the one that have a one that fits in a bigger one, that fits in a bigger one, that fits in a bigger one? That’ll work. The smallest doll is the one who you are, and the rest are just the layers used to disguise that fact. But to any observer, the larger dolls are all there is to see. So isn’t that doll the real one? Does having something underneath that’s “real” but no one ever sees allow it to be “real”? Aren’t we just what people see?

I found out the other day, almost accidentally, that a good friend of mine has tried heroin. Now, I’m not being judgmental here; though heroin doesn’t necessarily seem like my cup of tea — what with the shitting yourself, tendency toward self-mutilation and willingness to suck a dog’s dick if it’ll lead to another hit — I’m not going to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. (I once sucked down loads of alcohol at a medical students’ party then spun around in a circle until I was convinced I had calculated Pi using Roman numerals; I have lost all moral and intellectual high ground, I assure you.)

This is not the type of guy who has tried heroin. This is the type of guy who can name all 70 British Prime Ministers — there have been 70, right? — wears ties to work and is probably seen as legit middle management material at his nice City corporate complex. And he’s done heroin. I cannot square this with the person I know; I can’t even conjure a mental picture of him drinking rum or whiskey. (I try to imagine him with a tourniquet with Post-It notes on it in his briefcase, or producing an Excel document with different syringe classifications.) But he has. Does that mean the person I know is a fake? I would argue not. I would argue that he’s just as real as the one who did heroin; he’s real to me. I’m sure the people he did heroin with have never heard him defend Tory policy. I have. That’s as real as anything. That’s worse than doing heroin, actually.

But who is he to himself? Can he make peace with the disparity? Deep down, at the end of the day, when someone tells him to “be himself,” what does he think of? Does it make a difference?

I don’t think so. I think the public face we attach to ourselves is far more real than any layers or shading that we convince ourselves we have. So the part of David will be played today by the quirky, funny guy, until it’s the serious contemplative guy, until it’s the loving boyfriend guy, until it’s the quiet employee. We’ll be whatever makes it easier to get through the day, to make it to the next day, and to the next day. And during the night, in the quiet, we are alone with ourselves, wondering what role we play now. The prospect is so terrifying that Nature was merciful enough to require us to sleep.

If that’s not a persuasive definition of what it means to be alive, I’m not sure what is.

Forget work. Get a life!

I don’t like to talk too much about my job. It’s not that it’s a bad job, one of those soul-crushing, life-extinguishing corporate slogs bathed in dead light and empty pallor. But neither is it particularly fascinating or compelling. It pays the bills, but it doesn’t exactly have me jumping out of bed full of piss and vigour, ready to conquer the world, to do some Great Work, let’s go! I feel I’m getting too old to be expecting too much of that, though. It doesn’t make me so tired that I can’t concentrate on anything else when I’m away from work, allowing me to indulge in any and all extracurricular activities without worrying whether or not I’ll be able to finish that report by Friday. It’s a job, and that’s that. I do it, and I go home.

Last week, I met up with a few old friends at Rockwells, a great rooftop terrace bar in central London with stunning views over Trafalgar Square. We met a friend of a friend, a mid-30s haggard woman who looked like she stopped caring all that much about life six or seven years ago. She was wearing a bland, dreary “professional” outfit, one of those drab white shirts with a big collar and grey trousers that, despite a baggy nature, probably should have been abandoned about 15 pounds ago.

I grabbed a drink and was introduced to her. Not all that compelled, I nevertheless tossed out the obligatory so-how-are-you. I don’t even think she paused to ask my name because she was off and running. “Oh, what a day at work I had! You know how some people, no matter how well you explain things to them, still don’t get it? Well, there was this woman, and I tell you, I don’t understand some people. I told her I needed the file by 3 p.m. and she told me she’d have it, but then she was avoiding my calls, and I dunno, our office is really formal, but I feel like people just don’t pay attention, because there’s this one woman in accounts, and I don’t know what her problem is, because she can’t seem to figure out her e-mail, so this jpeg I needed didn’t arrive until 4 p.m., which is just way too late for anyone to be able to do anything with anything. You know what I mean?”

I was surprised she hadn’t noticed that, halfway through her absorbing dissertation, I set fire to myself and leapt off the roof. And still, I could hear her going on about Sue in HR and Dawn from the office down the corridor, all the way down. To be honest, I think she was waiting for me when I hit the pavement, talking about how people just don’t really respect their colleagues these days, you know you know you know?

That day, I had written a business case for a project I’m trying to get underway this summer, had two meetings with senior management, emailed several potential suppliers about the proposed project, sat in on another department’s meeting, and tried my best to keep on top of all the  other usual daily stuff. Does that strike you as anything even slightly noteworthy? I mean, it doesn’t strike me as noteworthy, and I work there. With occasional exceptions, our jobs are pretty much the most boring things we do. My job is what allows me to do fun, challenging activities outside of work; to expect the job itself to provide them is actually quite presumptuous. And even if it did, they’d only be of interest to me. I certainly wouldn’t want to force anyone else to put up with it.

My dad had the right idea about work. He had one priority: raising a family and providing for them. Whatever he did during the day to make that happen was beside the point. Sure, he took pride in his work, and he was very good at it, but I don’t remember him going on and on at dinner about this person’s constant screw-ups (although he did occasionally have some pretty hilarious stories), or cumbersome paperwork, or some new equipment they’d brought in. What mattered was us – Mum, and our education, and fun, and why our rooms were a mess. There is your job, and there is life, and they needn’t mix.

But some people just can’t stop. What amazes me sometimes is how people who claim to hate their job can’t stop talking about it. In fact, the amount they seem to despise their work seems to be directly proportional to how much they seem to insist the rest of the world cares. One would think that if someone were miserable at her job, it would be all the more reason to shut it out of her mind when she goes home. It never works out that way.

Your true friends consider what you do for a living so little in their assessment of you as a human being. It’s not like my friends liked me more when I was a full-time journalist and less when I moved into IT. With old friends of mine, the ones who live in different countries and who I talk to six, seven times a year, any conversations about our jobs are cursory. What’s important is that we have one, so we can live our lives.

My job provides me with income, a private office, Web access, an iPhone and constant access to online music when I’m at my desk. I just summed it up. Someday, I’ll have a job that provides me with more income. Maybe someday, I’ll get to a point where I won’t have to work at all. Until then, though, I’ll wake up, shower, walk to work, go home at five, and shut up about it. It is amazing how earth-shattering a concept this is to many!

Sex musings at midnight

Here’s a question for you: How important is sex?

I don’t mean how important it is to a healthy relationship. Sex is a vital part of any relationship, and usually when a couple has a poor sex life, you can tell after hanging out with them for about 20 minutes. The air’s a little thicker, more dense, there’s a certain level of tension… and people keep accidentally crushing wine glasses in their hand. Here’s a tip for fellow people-watchers: When a woman walks across the room and punches her boyfriend in the face, their sex life is not working. Or, perhaps, it has reached a level that you and I just don’t want to think about.

I’m speaking more specifically of the amount of sex we individually need. How important is it to us? Is it all relative?

Let’s take two people, for example:

One is a female friend of mine. She lost her virginity when she was about 16. She is pretty, smart, sociable, and is a serial monogamist. No matter what, she always has a boyfriend — I’ve never known her to be single. Then, about six months ago, she had a long-term relationship end and, in a first for her, there was no one else waiting in the wings. She’s hardly the type of girl to sleep around or just pick up guys at clubs so, suddenly, something that was a regular part of her life just ended. She’s now gone six months without sex. According to her, the longest she’d gone without sex until this six-month hiatus was 32 days. Imagine that: something that had just been a part of your life… just gone. Emotional attachments aside, when something you’ve lived with on a reliable basis since you were 16 is taken away suddenly, that’s a definitive change. (Of course, I know the guy she was just dating quite well and… let’s just say that I doubt she’s missing too much.)

The other is a male friend. Whatever the opposite of a serial monogamist is, that’s what he is. Dates? Ha! He never dates. Ever. He went on a few dates with one girl and never even got her winter coat off. Other than that, zilch. Six months without sex? Try six years. At this point, he’s almost asexual. It’s not that he doesn’t want to have sex; it’s just that he’s got used to not getting any. He doesn’t even really think about it that much anymore (though when the 40 Days, 40 Nights movie first came out, he did bash his head against a wall repeatedly for about a week and a half). He doesn’t even try to go after girls anymore. What’s the point? Sex is something on the Internet or late-night telly, a spectator sport far more than a participatory one. Someday he’ll have sex again, I’m sure. But at this point, there’s no rush.

Which person would you rather be? Neither is having sex right now. Both are human beings, and both need it. But the girl is having a far more difficult time with it than the guy. He’s accepted his lot. To put this another way, paraphrasing: Is it better to have had some play and lost it, than to have never had any play at all?

Another friend is getting married later this year. From all accounts, he seems to have a happy, moderately healthy sex life. Nothing to complain about. But, like all relationships, sometimes circumstances dictate performance. Occasionally, he’ll go a week or two without having sex. No big deal when he was a single guy; essentially, his life was just a continuous string of a week or two without sex. But now, when that week or two takes place with a hot girl sleeping next to you, and you start to itch and squirm, suddenly a week seems a lot longer.

I spoke with him about this some months ago. Specifically, I spoke about a little, um, dry spell I was going through myself. He looked at me like I’d just peed in my pants: “Man, stop being a dickhead! No sex for how long? Seriously man, there was a point a few years ago I was tempted to screw the dog!” (Trust me, that’s not an image you want in your head at midnight!)

But he’s right. I suppose my major neuroticism about sex and relationships is that while I know some women might find me attractive, sexy even, I often can’t quite figure it out myself. (Well, other than the minor man-boobs!) Do I think about this more when I’m in a relationship, or when I’m not? I figure I’m probably the worst at the start of a new relationship. If I go without sex for a while, I can pretty much just convince myself that it’s only because I haven’t found the right woman yet. But put a woman in my bed every night for a week and, until I get used to it, I’m convinced she’s really dreaming of the guy in the kebab shop up the street, the one with the mole shaped like a penis on his cheek. She wishes she were in bed with him right now; I just know it!

And what is it we really get out of sex anyway? Is it strictly orgasm? If so, there are some guys (and girls) who have the most functional relationship I know with their shower heads. Shit, the shower doesn’t even mind if they bring in pictures of other girls! Or do we just need the closeness? Or, lo, could it be, that we have sex because we’re actually in love? How much less is it when we’re not? And, after six years without sex, does it even matter?

I think we have the best sex when we’re in love, because we’ve got the other person more or less figured out, and because it’s a legitimate sharing process. But then this logic makes me think that a good wank can trump sex, and I don’t really believe that. Do I…? Whoa! Perhaps I should just get off this logic train!

Of course, ideally, someone is just single, without commitments, and still having sex on a regular basis, with no ebbs and flows — just something new all the time. I don’t think those people actually exist though. Well… maybe in the Premier League…

Making magic

It is staggering to see how much artistic talent there is out there, everywhere, really. Wherever you look, someone is making something, and they’re quite good at it.

A friend of mine works in the financial industry. He spends his days dealing with hedge funds and separately managed accounts. When he leaves the office, he gets together with a colleague and practices with his band, in which they play the keyboards and start the drum machine and sing and dance in front of mostly empty bars. The next day, he slogs back into work and does it all again.

Another guy I know temps. He hops from job to job, a nobody, the guy floating around the office that no one knows. At night, he hits the stand-up comedy circuit, staving off hecklers, constantly trying out new material. He is constantly pushing for that big break, which has to happen, because he’s working so hard. And he is pretty funny.

And don’t get me started on the Web. At the risk of sounding grumpy, everybody’s got a damned blog. It’s their place where they can be who they really are, unvarnished, expressing themselves truthfully and with conviction. Odds are, someone you know has an Internet presence, a place where they can produce and enliven themselves, and you have no idea. There’s some great stuff out there on the Web. You should check them all out.

The most exhilarating part of any creative endeavour is that, essentially, it’s all magic. Whether you’re a tortured artist driven mad by your own genius or just some loser stringing together bad similes about your ex-girlfriend set to awkward acoustical fumblings in an empty pub, you are introducing something new into the world. Before you put pen to paper, or paint to canvas, or fingers to guitar, there was nothing there. You created it. There was emptiness, and you filled it, generating a real tangible thing out of thin air, pulling the rabbit out of your hat. It’s tremendously exciting. And — and here’s where it gets you — addictive. Ruthlessly so.

Because after a while, even if you’re good, you realise it doesn’t pay shit, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard and frustrating and totally thankless. You realise that there are a million other kids out there doing the same thing you are, and some of them are better, a lot of them are. And, worst, you realise that you’re growing older, and all the stuff you imagined for yourself, a family, a nice home, Sunday League football with the kids, all that’s creeping up on you. For a while you compromise, and you balance doing what you’re passionate about with what you have to do to survive and lay the groundwork for future happiness. But that line keeps inching up on you, and you find that you’re expressing yourself less and less, that after a full 8-hour workday, which you have to go through to pay your rent and live your life, get out from under your debt, whatever…  you’re just too tired to create, which, after all, at its core, is just more work. Next thing you know, you haven’t written, or painted, or performed, in months. The momentum stops, and you’re just another person working in an office, hoping to beat the traffic home. And before you know it, you’re the guy telling the upstart new kid at work, the one so full of promise and hope and optimism, how you used to write, or paint, or perform, all the time, really, I was quite good, I just didn’t catch my break, you know? Because eventually you do have to stop. As Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the oldest guy in the bar.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It happens. How could it not? We only have so much time.

Ask your parents. No matter what they do in their lives, whether they’re an electrician or a nurse or a tax collector, I can guarantee you that when they were young, they had some sort of artistic endeavour. Maybe they wrote poems in their diary, maybe they just tore apart cars and put them back together. Do they do it anymore? Is it still a part of their life? Watch their face when they tell you how they used to paint. Watch it light up, then crest into a faint sadness. “That was a long time ago,” they’ll say.

A smart person said once that the worst thing you can say to someone under the age of 30 in London is, “You will never be famous. Let it go.” It’s a cold-blooded, cynical, joyless thing to say, even more so because it’s heartbreakingly true. And when you consider that 99 percent of the time, you’d be absolutely right, well, it makes you want to hide in your room and not try to create anything.

But yet, but yet, you do, we do, we all do. It doesn’t have to end in fame, or money, or sex (though, to be fair, it’s always nice when something ends in sex). Nobody starts doing something because they think it will ultimately provide them worldly pleasures; they do it because they love it, because they must do it.

One friend spends her day trying to help people with mental health problems, many of whom show no appreciation whatsoever for her efforts. It’s a tough and often emotionally-draining job, but in her spare time she leaves that behind and designs handbags. “It’s just my little thing that I do for me,” she says.

Is she wrong? The others above, the ones sneaking in gigs after the stock exchange closes, the ones telling jokes, the ones writing poetry, are they wrong? Are they fooling themselves? Are they wasting their time? Should they stop?

No, no, no, never, never. They are creating magic, every one of them, and that’s something a nice house and matching linens can never replace. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them, or to me, but I love them, I love that they still care, I love that it matters. I hope they never, ever stop. I know I don’t plan to. We all have to keep going, while we can.

El: A Love Story

Written March 7, 2011

This is a story about my friend Elena.

We met one night I was out with some mates soon after I had moved from London to Surrey. She was Italian, tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught our attention. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldn’t even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and football and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realised what was happening, she was hosting parties at her flat and commenting in her accented, withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screw-ups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother — shit, like everyone’s infamous mothers — although she was a little younger than most of us, she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the bee’s knees.

She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single activity — the drinking games, paintballing, the Three-Curve test (don’t ask), you name it — without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our group’s close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didn’t have to wait long.

All the guys secretly had crushes on Elena and the girls were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. El (she called me Dee), used to love to make fun of me because I was dating, for a spell, a series of women older than I was and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies closer to my own age who could have potentially been interested. It wasn’t long before she became our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had were always run through Elena. She was an unstoppable force.

Then she started dating Dickhead. To most, he was known as Mario, a name most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Dickhead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Mario was three years younger than most of us, a drummer in a band, and the butt of almost all the jokes from the guys. He also took part in competitive cycle races, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why cyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didn’t really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Mario was a short, dopey, slightly effeminate little wanker. He hadn’t really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag.

And Mario, no way was he good enough for El. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Year after year, they remained the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Elena told Mario that none of her friends liked him, and he said “What about David?” and she delivered the classic line, “Mario… he calls you Dickhead.”

Their relationship continued when Mario had to return to Italy for his job and El and I, who lived only a couple miles apart, remained the best of friends. She tried to set me up with all her single girlfriends, took me to all her fun music parties, even came along to a few of my football games, and talked about how much she missed Mario. We were inseparable. Some people started thinking we were an item, and there was the expected gossip, but we didn’t care.

One afternoon, I was sitting at home, inexplicably depressed, and El called. “I’m bored. Let’s go see a movie.” We decided on The Departed, headed to London and then walked out of the cinema around 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those rare balmy London summer evenings, and we had a meal, a few drinks and then just walked around until about 1 a.m. talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We walked and talked, just two old friends, looking at life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.

In the autumn, Mario returned to London, and I changed jobs, and El and I just didn’t see each other that often anymore. Then she and Mario got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Mario, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than I’d noticed before, and I felt like an arsehole, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I hugged them both, and then they moved back to Italy and El and I only saw each other on her brief visits to London. Then we sort of lost touch a little. It happens and it’s no fun, but that’s life… and then she called me one night right out of the blue.

“Hi Dee, there’s something I have to tell you.” She sounded fine, almost cheery. Could it be? Mario and Elena had been married for over two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. El would make an incredible mother. Maybe they’d let me be the crazy godfather! I beamed in anticipation of the news.

“I have cancer.” Oh Christ! No! But it was true. Hodgkin’s Disease. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like El. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was so, so sorry, then called up a few of the guys, went out and drank until I forgot my name.

Every time I called for the next few months, Mario would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether El had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Mario and Elena, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She wouldn’t be able to have children. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still El, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Mario was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I don’t know if I ever took the opportunity to apologise to Mario for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didn’t, I’m sorry. Seriously. We were stupid. You’re a good man. You have my respect. (Dickhead. Hee-hee.)

Sometime, I’m not sure when, maybe around October 2008, El announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Mario hosted a party in London, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my grey hairs, we watched old videos, we drank and talked all night, like the last few years had only been a week. I took El aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so soppy. Then she hugged me back.

I saw her last around November last year. She had a hectic schedule and we only talked briefly over coffee, and we made plans to try to meet up before she went back to Italy. But it was a busy week for both of us, and we didn’t get to see each other. And then this weekend I received another e-mail, addressed to about 20 people.

It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldn’t figure it out at first. And then it dawned on me: These were ultrasound pictures. These were of Mario and Elena’s son. Nineteen weeks in. July 18 is the due date. And right there, in the middle of a London cafe, I broke down in floods of tears. Against the odds, they’d done it. El, a mum! The next time I see her, she will be holding her baby boy.

In a Thank You card she sent me after her wedding, just before returning to Italy, Elena wrote the following: Don’t forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? I’d kill you. This is really mushy and it’s making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, I’d want to be you. – El

El, my friend, it’s been over five years since you wrote that, and don’t worry, I’ll never forget you. And if I were a girl, I’d want to be you too. As long as I don’t ever have to have sex with Dickhead.

  • Cristiano David was born on July 17, 2011. I am his godfather!
  • My dear friend Elena passed away on June 14, 2016. Riposa in pace il mio caro amico 😦

is is a story about my friend Elena.

We met one night I was out with some mates soon after I had moved from London to Surrey. She was Italian, tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught our attention. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldn’t even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and football and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realised what was happening, she was hosting parties at her flat and commenting in her accented, withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screw-ups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother — shit, like everyone’s infamous mothers — although she was a little younger than most of us she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the bee’s knees.

She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single activity — the drinking games, the “Three-Curve” test, you name it — without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our group’s close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didn’t have to wait long.

All the guys secretly had crushes on Elena and the girls were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. El (she called me Dee),  used to love to make fun of me because I was dating, for a spell, a series of women older than I was and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies closer to my own age who could have potentially been interested. It wasn’t long before she became our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had were always run through Elena. She was an unstoppable force.

Then she started dating Dickhead. To most, he was known as Mario, a name most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Dickhead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Mario was a year younger than most of us, a drummer in a band, and the butt of almost all the jokes from the guys. He also took part in competitive cycle races, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why cyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didn’t really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Mario was a short, dopey, slightly effeminate little wanker. He hadn’t really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag.

And Mario, no way was he good enough for El. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Year after year, they remained the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Elena told Mario that none of her friends liked him, and he said “What about David?” and she delivered the classic line, “Mario… he calls you Dickhead.”

Their relationship continued even when Mario had to return to Italy for his job and El and I, who lived only a couple miles apart, remained the best of friends. She tried to set me up with all her single girlfriends, took me to all her fun music parties, even came along to a few of my football games, and talked about how much she missed Mario. We were inseparable. Some people started thinking we were an item, something that (most unusually) I had never even considered, but we didn’t care.

One evening, I was sitting at home, inexplicably lonely and depressed, and El called. “Let’s go see a movie.” We decided on The Departed, headed to London and then walked out of the cinema around 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those rare balmy London summer evenings, and we grabbed some food, had a few drinks and then just walked around until about 1 a.m. talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We walked and talked, just two old friends, looking at life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.

In the autumn, Mario returned to London, and I changed jobs, and El and I just didn’t see each other that often anymore. Then she and Mario got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Mario, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than I’d noticed before, and I felt like an arsehole, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I almost cried, and I hugged them both, and then they moved back to Italy and El and I only saw each other on her brief visits to London. Then we sort of lost touch a little. It happens and it’s no fun, but that’s life… and then she called me one night right out of the blue.

“Hi Dee, there’s something I have to tell you.” Could it be? Mario and Elena had been married for over two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. El would make an incredible mother. Maybe they’d let me be the crazy godfather! I beamed in anticipation of the news.

“I have cancer.” Oh Christ! Fuck! No! But it was true. Hodgkin’s Disease. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like El. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was so, so sorry, then called up a few of the guys, went out and drank until I forgot my name.

Every time I would call for the next few months, Mario would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether El had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Mario and Elena, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still El, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Mario was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I don’t know if I ever took the opportunity to apologise to Mario for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didn’t, I’m sorry. Seriously. We were stupid. You’re a good man. You have my respect. (Dickhead. Hee-hee.)

Sometime, I’m not sure when, maybe around October 2008, El announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Mario hosted a party in London, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my grey hairs, we watched old videos, we drank and talked all night, like the last few years had only been a week. I took El aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so soppy. Then she hugged me back.

I saw her last around October last year. She had a hectic schedule and we only talked briefly over coffee, and we made plans to try to meet up before she went back to Italy. But it was a busy week, and we didn’t get to see each other. And then this weekend I received another e-mail from her, addressed to about 30 people.

It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldn’t figure it out at first. And then it dawned on me: These were ultrasound pictures. These were of Mario and Elena’s son. Nineteen weeks in. July 18 is the due date. And right there, in the middle of a London cafe, I broke down. They’d done it. El, a mum! The next time I see her, she will be holding her son.

In a Thank You card she sent me after her wedding, just before returning to Italy, Elena wrote the following: Don’t forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? I’d kill you. This is really mushy and it’s making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, I’d want to be you. – El

El, my friend, it’s been over five years since you wrote that, and don’t worry, I’ll never forget you. And if I were a girl, I’d want to be you too. As long as I don’t ever have to have sex with Dickhead.

Yes, that IS me you can feel in your back!

All right, I’m about to sound like a a bit of a nerd or a proper pub quiz champ with a Spock fetish, so bear with me.

In my entire life, I have never looked at the evening spread out before me, full of infinite possibilities, and decided, “OK, I’m going to go find a complete stranger and talk her into coming home and having sex with me.” I am not attempting to sound like some sort of sensitive panty-man here; I certainly hold no discernible philosophical qualm with the notion of engaging in carnality with a woman with whom I am otherwise not familiar, particularly if she bulges in all the right places and has no specific problem with bringing a friend. And if a few clever words and a bit of banter helps me to achieve that goal… why not?

But I’m talking about something else. There seems to be a whole culture out there — presumably fuelled by alcohol-drenched freshers parties from years past where Smith’s little sister would be willing to go all night if offered the right drink by the right guy — that involves sad little men walking up to random women and asking them, repeatedly, where they’re from, what they’re like, what they do all day, how did they get such beautiful eyes, until they either stop accepting the free drinks, find a tall bouncer to hide behind or, in a one-in-20,000 shot, they actually succumb to the drunken charms and just sleep with them already.

This surely isn’t shocking to you. If you’re not a part of this culture — and even if you are, you’re loathe to admit it — you certainly have seen it, probably anytime you head out for a Friday night. But I could never really get my head around it. Either I’m at the theatre/cinema/band night, chilling with my mates down at the pub or at someone’s house, or I’m sitting at home reading a book while bouncing coins off the carpet trying to discover the Meaning Of Life, watching telly or a movie, or doing other random and occasionally unspeakable things. The thump-thump, hey-I-haven’t-seen-you-here-before club world is not really my regular social scene, to say the least, but it’s everywhere, and when I stumble across it, it’s like joining a conversation midway and realising everyone’s speaking Esperanto.

The other evening, I met up with some friends for drinks after work. We left the work week behind with two-for-one specials and shots with vaguely bigoted names — what, exactly, is a Black Russian? — and the resident deejay playing the hits of the day. The minutes bled into hours, and towards the end of the night, it was just me, Richard and Dave, and Richard’s girlfriend, Sally. The guys were shooting darts — quite well, I feel obliged to point out — and I stepped outside for some fresh air and a phone call. When I returned, a bald guy in an Old Navy button-up long sleeve with a peculiar stain on his trousers was talking to Sal.

Now. People talk to each other all the time at bars. One of the fun aspects of drunken nights in this city of ours is the raw amount of miscreants you meet here, the unwanted, the listless, the lost. They all have stories to tell, some tedious, some implausible, but always new, always unexpected. This seems like a natural process to me. Sally’s talking to a strange guy over there; hey, why not? He might have a funny story we’ll get to hear later. But then it went on, and she started to look uncomfortable, and he started touching her arm, and shit, then I really didn’t know what to do. I mean… is he trying to pull? Doesn’t he see she came in with a strapping stud of a man, albeit one carrying a scorebook and a freshly sharpened set of darts? I looked at Rich — he was squinting at the dartboard and completely oblivious to everything else — and back at Sal. Finally, she sidled over to me, with “him” tugboating along, lapping up the back of her hair, and she shot me a look of distinct disappointment. She hissed in my ear: “Why didn’t you save me from that guy?”

Um… Me?! Glancing again at Richard (her boyfriend, in case you’re not keeping up). He was still oblivious but, from the look Sal gave him, she seemed to expect that. She explained that, well, this happens all the time. “I’m just used to it at this point. It happens every time you go to a bar.” Now, she is quite pretty, but it still hadn’t registered. Did this guy really think he was going to get laid? I found out later that he told her she had the most beautiful eyes in the bar, which would be quite a compliment had I not overheard him saying it to another girl about 15 minutes earlier.

That said… I mean, who says “you have the most beautiful eyes in this bar” with a straight face? Seriously. Come on! Another friend was out recently and the guy behind her dropped this cringe-worthy delivery: “Yes, that is me you can feel in your back!” Are you fucking kidding me?! After millions of years of evolution, when we’ve put a man on the moon, this is the best we’ve come up with?

There’s this guy I know, a pleasant enough bloke with close friends and an apparent plan in life, who, for some reason, turns into a sucking letch when he goes to a bar. It’s fascinating to watch him in action. You’ll be standing there, having a conversation about whatever, and by the time you’ve set your drink down, he’s lurking behind the Allen sisters with the big boobs sipping their vodka cranberries at the end of the bar. He’s not unattractive, necessarily, but he’s no Brad Pitt, I’ll tell you that.

You just look at him, like a kid trying to score goals from the corner flag at the end of practice, thinking that if he actually hits this ridiculously unlikely shot, his life will somehow have meaning. And it’s miss after miss. But he keeps kicking them; someday, it has to go in, right?

And he’ll plug on forever, I bet, until he lucks into that one off the post, which will be all the impetus he needs to keep shooting.

And ladies, ladies, ladies… why must thou encourage them so? No, you’re not exempt from this whole thing. Why a woman who doesn’t want to be picked up — and, honestly, what woman wants to be picked up by a stranger at a bar? I mean, has it ever worked? — would accept an unsolicited drink from one of these guys is beyond my range of comprehension. I mean, I like free drinks too, but is it worth it to be hounded by Vic from Staines all night?

I think there should be some sort of rule. If you accept a free drink from a stranger, you should be required to sit in a room alone with him and a chaperone, and actually listen to him talk for an hour. Many wasted evenings would be nipped in the bud quite quickly, I reckon. “No, no, actually, I don’t live with my parents. But yes, yes, I’m sure the rent is cheap.”

I don’t know. I think I’m just out of my element here and lashing out. In a way, I have to respect a guy with the balls big enough to gleefully dispatch with any fear of rejection and plunge forward, undaunted. But at the end of the night, when it’s dark, and the chat rooms have quieted… is this any way to live your life? Do you need someone that badly? What is it you’re looking for, exactly?

Of course, with guys like Rich standing in the corner squinting at a dartboard while you chat up their girls… I suppose I can’t blame you.