This is going to be a mistake, I thought to myself as I stood outside Manchester Piccadilly train station waiting for S. It was starting to rain, huge goblets were dropping from the Joy Division sky, as I checked my phone anxiously. S was late, of course, S was always late. Part of me was always waiting for S, checking my phone, trying to work out how many hours of my life I’d spent waiting for S. Although, to the outside observer it seemed like I had been waiting for S in many different locations across nearly thirty years, in actual fact, as my state-of-mind, anxious, annoyed yet utterly resigned to the fact of S being late, was always the same, I experienced waiting for S not successively but simultaneously. Whilst I was waiting for S outside of Manchester Piccadilly train station I was also waiting for him in a dive hotel lobby in Budapest, at the magazine rack inside Mac’s News and by the monographs on the French Revolution at the University library. Realising this made me relax slightly. I hitched my rucksack up on my back and texted S to tell him I would be inside the concourse by the information screens.
I saw S before he saw me. He looked sweaty and dishevelled, and his eyes were darting nervously from side to side. I stuck my hand in the air until he saw me, and then I turned my back and headed towards the platform. S bustled up alongside me.
“Sorry I’m late, it’s been a fucker of a morning.”
“Aren’t they all?”
We did the walk/jog hybrid beloved of commuters and just made it on to the Cross-country train in time. The doors locked behind us and the train started moving before we found our seats.
Some part of me is always berating S for being late, so I decided that I didn’t need to actually say anything as we put our bags in the overhead storage space and sat down. S started to tell me about his morning, about how there had been some emergency problem with the university server that he had been woken up at 4am in order to fix and he had only just managed to get the system stable again before the train was due and that was why he almost missed it, and he was sick of being on call, that he was going to quit and do nothing for 6 months whilst he figured out what he really wanted out of life. I wasn’t really listening, I had my own problems to worry about.
We were catching the train down to Bournemouth, our childhood home, to attend the wedding of our old friend P. It had seemed like a good idea when I accepted the invitation and persuaded S to accept his own invitation. We could travel down together, and spend the weekend by the seaside catching up with old friends. Now that we were beginning our journey though I was starting to wonder if this was such a good idea. In particular two thoughts had struck me:
1. Old friends are old friends, as opposed to current friends, for a reason.
2. There was a reason why S had fled to Manchester and never returned, and there was a reason why I had fled to Manchester and then fled further to Glasgow and never returned.
“I’m going to find the buffet car.”
“Can you get me a coffee?”
Ten minutes later I picked my way through past trailing limbs, outsized suitcases and half-folded pushchairs to our seats.
“What did you want again?”
“I got you 2 cans of warm Stella.”
“I don’t want 1 can of warm Stella, let alone 2. Why did you buy me 2 cans?”
“There was a deal if I bought 4 … I don’t think I can drink 4 cans right now so you should do your civic duty and help me out.”
“Jesus” said S as he pressed down the tab on the beer can until it opened with a hiss and the beer frothed and ran over the top of the can down onto the stained off-white seat tray on the 11.16 cross-country service from Manchester to Bournemouth.
Just leaving Stockport, “Have you ever considered wearing a hat?” I said to S, “It might give you gravitas, or at least hide your baldness. When do you think your hair will finally stop clinging on? When do you think your hair will accept the futility of its attempts to cover your massive scalp? It’s a metaphor isn’t it, your vanishing hairline, where there’s hair there’s hope, that’s what you tell yourself isn’t it? Whilst you are not completely bald you still think there is time for you to change your life around and do something meaningful. That downy tuft of gosling like hair on your crown is all there is between you and suicide isn’t there?” S stares at me and takes a long pull on his can of warm Stella Artois.
We’re approaching Stafford when the at seat trolley service comes past. I order another 4 cans of Stella for £10. After a moment S, leans over me and plucks all the remaining gin-in-a-tins from the cart. “If I have to sit next to you for another 4 hours I don’t want to remember it” says S by way of explanation. The woman in charge of the trolley looks at us nervously but takes our crumpled notes anyway. I can see she is wondering whether she should make a call to the transport police to be ready with tasers and handcuffs when the train pulls into Wolverhampton so I try to put her at ease. “Don’t worry, he’s just joking” I say, gesturing at S, “he’s just forgotten to buy our friends a wedding present and he’s hoping that these gins will make an ok present.” I turn to S, “maybe you should get them a Kitkat as well?” “We’ve sold out of kitkats” says the woman handing S his change and pushing the trolley onwards down the carriage.
The train arrives early into Stafford station and sits on the platform for a few minutes. “How did you know I had forgotten to buy them a wedding present” asks S, “do you think anywhere will still be open when we arrive?”
When the train is moving again I can feel the confidence from the first 2 warm Stella’s begin to evaporate so I open another one in the hope that it will revive me. “Your failure is more honest than mine” I say to S, as an unkempt hair from my moustache snags in the ring-pull of the can making me wince. “At least you’ve been upfront about it, you knew you would fall short of everything we dreamt of, so you didn’t even try, you fled to the north to be an IT professional whereas I fled to the north to continue my studies before unleashing my creative talent on the world, and all I have done is unlearn everything I once knew and unleash my unending thirst on an interchangeable series of pubs. I think I knew though, that’s why I had to go further north than you, I knew deep down that I would fail, but I couldn’t admit to anyone else, that’s why I had to go further away than you. Of course, if I had an ounce of self-respect I would just keep on heading north, to Scandinavia, far, far away from the south of England and the stench of my dying dreams.” I said to S, as the mechanised voice announced Wolverhampton as our next station stop.
Somewhere between Wolverhampton and Birmingham New Street. “I’m only disappointed in us because we had promise” I say to S, as families gather themselves together around us, ready for an afternoon of shopping at the Bullring, “is it better to have had potential and fail utterly to live up to it, or to have had no potential at all?” I ask S, as my left arm is bumped into and jostled by pre-teenage children trying to find a seat.” There’s no need to answer that.”
As we leave Birmingham behind and head towards Coventry and Leamington Spa, S is talking about the bands he has recently seen, mostly bands who had their moment, then ruined it for themselves and split up and have now reformed in order to ruin it for everyone who had good memories of their younger selves. We care too much about music, we agree, that’s our weakness, or one of them at any rate we accept, we think that bands mean the words they sing, just like we would mean the words we would sing if only we could, but they don’t, we agree, they never mean them at all, or if they do mean them it is a meaning that can be changed for a cheque. Musicians make good capitalists we agree, we know that it is true, but as soon as we hear a song of revolution set to a noisy guitar riff we forget it instantly and fall in love again, forgetting that music has ever disappointed us. We’re idiots, we agree, but at least we are innocent idiots. Is that better than being a cynical idiot? I wonder, but S is adamant that it is and it makes me feel better to agree with him.
I think I fell asleep because I don’t remember stopping in Banbury but we must have done, I distinctly remember that the train was due to stop in Banbury but we stopped in Leamington Spa and the next stop is now showing as Oxford. I look over at S but he is staring intently at the advancing buffet car. There is a different person in charge of it now, thank God. S, turns to me, “you keep quiet, I’ll handle this” he hisses. S buys more drinks, sandwiches and crisps with a level of competence I don’t remember seeing from him before. “I don’t think they sell pro-plus otherwise I would have you got you some” S says to me as the train pulls into Oxford. I don’t answer because I am too horrified by what I can see out of the window. “Who are these people?” I ask, “these are our future leaders and look at them, look at them in their salmon pink trousers, with their gormless expressions and their complexions like boiled hams.” “Keep it down” says S, and I can see that our deck shoe wearing overlords are looking in my direction. “For fucks sake, they’re probably logging your face into some central database right now”, hisses S from behind his gin-in-a-tin, “ready to pre-emptively arrest you before you commit the hopelessly deluded act of protest that your life is inevitably heading towards.” “Will you be beside me”, I ask S, “As I fling my molotov cocktail at parliament?” “He won’t he says. “Will you stand by me at my trial” I say, “will you organise petitions protesting my innocence and stand on oath as a character witness?” He won’t do that either, replies S, he has responsibilities now and doesn’t intend on going to jail for any reason at all, especially not if that reason is me. He’ll be standing in the public galleries, cheering as my sentence is announced, making sure that his feudal masters know that he is a loyal subject, that he can’t be found guilty by association.
The worst thing about seeing old friends is that they see you not as you are but as you could have been, which is why S is always so disappointed in me, and why I am always so disappointed in S. Why on earth are we going to spend an entire weekend with people who will be looking at us and comparing us with what we could have been? “Someone turn this train around”, I say to S, as the train idles in Reading’s futuristic new station (“What on earth has Reading done to deserve a station like this?” asks S, “This looks like it has come out of the manifesto of the futurists. What a dreadful disappointment in must be to leave this station and see Reading as it actually is. A backwards, consumerist vision of hell”),” Nothing good can come of this”, I say to S, as the passengers around us study their watches. S pushes another beer towards me. The best thing about travelling with old friends is that they know how to calm you.
We are somewhere between Basingstoke and Winchester and settled into a comfortable silence when S lets out a groan.” For a minute there I was starting to enjoy myself”, mumbled S as he held his gin in a tin between his bottom lip and chin, “I was starting to relax, to forget about work, ignore your nonsense, notice the fields outside the window. I felt like I had finally learnt how to just enjoy the journey, and then I remembered why I was making this fucking journey in the first place.” I was tempted to ask S why we were making this journey in the first place as I knew that would enrage him but my almost empty beer can was sliding off the pull-down tray and I was too busy making sure it didn’t fall into the aisle so I kept quiet.” I fucking hate weddings”, said S,” they bring out the worst in everyone, including me. I can’t stand the clothes we have to wear, the hypocrisy of standing in a church when you know that neither the bride nor groom have been in a church since the school carol service, I can’t stand listening to the vows, the speeches, the children running around everywhere, the dreadful swing band that will inevitably be playing, the dancing and most of all I can’t stand the drinking. Every wedding I’ve ever been to has ended in disaster,” said S as he rummaged in his bag for a packet of quavers,” and it has always been because someone hands me a glass of cheap fizz in the morning and that’s it, all I can think about is drinking. White wine, red wine, gin, champagne, guinness, brandy and then more gin. That’s all I’ll remember about this weekend” says S, as he stuffs 3 quavers in his mouth.
I bring my phone out of my pocket and start trying to get on to the internet.” What are you doing?” asks S, with a mouthful of quavers. “Looking up flights, we’ll be at Southampton Airport soon. We’ll be saved, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier.” A flash of excitement passes over S’s face, his blue eyes suddenly seem brighter. “You can fly to Berlin from Southampton.” “That’s ideal”, I say to S, as the Southampton Airport website loads on my phone, “We’ll be safe in Berlin, we can eat pastries and drink coffee and really think about what we are doing with our lives, and once we’ve had our Berlin epiphany we’ll drink strong wheat beer and head out to dance to techno music until dawn.”
The train leaves Southampton Airport Parkway and we are still on it. “We’ll never be saved”, I say, “and we don’t deserve to be. It’s important to remember that we’re doomed, fighting it just makes the end more painful.” S looks doubtful and drains the rest of his gin. “It’ll be good to see P again though”, says S, “it’s good that he is happy with whatsername.” “Whatsername? How can you not even know the name of the bride?” I say, wiping the dregs of my final beer from my chin with the back of my sleeve. “Well what is her name then?” “I can’t remember, it must be on the invitation.” “Jesus,” laughs S, “how can neither of us know the name of the bride? What’s wrong with us? The only reason we’ve been invited to this wedding is that P wants to rub it in our faces.” “Rub what in our faces?” “The fact that he’s won, we thought we were so much better than him, that he was too scared to leave, and now it is clear for everyone to see that it didn’t matter if we left or stayed, we would have ended up in exactly the same state, and that it wouldn’t have mattered if he had left or stayed, he would have ended up in exactly the same state as well, a state happier and more successful than we could dream of.”
“We feel defeated now, but also more at peace”, I say to S as the train gathers pace. I put my arm around his shoulders, I always feel sentimental towards S when I’ve been drinking and I want to do something to cheer him up.” I was saving this for later, but then I realised that now is later”. I stand up, putting my hand on the headset of the seat in front to steady myself, and bring my tatty and fraying black rucksack down from the overhead locker. I reach into the bag and bring out a bottle of 18 year Flor de Cana rum and place it down amongst the debris of empty cans of Stella Artois and gin-in-a-tin, I crunch the empty sandwich packs against the back of the chair in front to make sure there is room for the bottle to sit evenly on the too small tray. We could do with some ice and some cups but that would mean having to get up and find the buffet trolley again and I’m not sure that either one of us in a fit state to make it there and back again. I take the top off the bottle and take a swig before passing it to S.
“What should we drink to?” I ask, “this is good stuff, it deserves a toast.” At that moment the guard’s voice comes over the tannoy, “Now approaching Bournemouth, this is our final stop, all change please, all change.” “To change?” says S, taking a long swig from the bottle and passing it back to me. I put the lid back on the rum and start to make sure I have all my belongings before I reach my final destination.