I jumped out of the train at random a while later on at Kennington Station, and climbed the stairs to emerge into bright daylight. The sun was high in the sky and it had turned into a fine, sunny day. I walked on automatic pilot for a while until I started to feel bit better.
Maybe a drink would sort me out. A can of red stripe would do the trick. Or perhaps a special brew, just to make sure. I considered the matter, and came to the conclusion that I didn’t really fancy anything so drastic. The thought of swallowing down a can of brew made me gag and I realized that getting out of my head wasn’t really a very good answer to my predicament. I felt grotty enough as it was, and it was still pretty early in the day.
I was aware that this was kind of a new type of thinking-process for me and this knowledge cheered me up. It felt as if I was developing some sort of maturity; it showed that I didn’t always have to go for the short term option – I was capable of thinking a bit further ahead.
What I really needed was something to eat. A picture of a cafe table came into my head, along with a big plate of egg, chips and beans. That would be a more sensible thing to do under the circumstances. I could roughly remember the location of the nearest cafe – I had to head towards the Oval, more or less. My pace became more purposeful and I felt stronger in myself after coming to a definite decision.
The connection between having a purpose and feeling more solid and grounded was interesting. I remembered the insight (if that’s what it was) that I had had on the train. Having a plan or a goal, and having some sort of over-all framework or strategy within which that goal made sense was somehow the key to everything. If the simple decision to have breakfast in a greasy-spoon cafe could cause such an improvement in my mood, then surely to arrive at a more serious decision would be the answer to all my problems. All I had to do was to review my situation, and see if I couldn’t get my head around it in some sort of a logical fashion. A mug of tea and a plate of egg, chips and beans would make a good start. I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken the time to eat a hot meal – it must have been days ago.
I found the cafe, placed my order, and sat down by the window. It was busy enough. At the table nearest me a large man was tucking into a fried breakfast whilst looking at his copy of the Star newspaper with expressionless eyes. His stomach was massive I noticed, and partially rested upon the table. His upper arms too were massive, they were thicker than my thighs – in fact they were nearly as thick as my waist.
As I sat there waiting for my order I could hear snatches of conversation coming from all directions; it was all bits and pieces, disjointed and jumbled up, and this had the effect of making me feel unpleasantly disorientated and distant from what was going on. My attention kept coming back to the big man eating his breakfast – I seemed to be seeing him in slow motion. Impassively taking in today’s ‘page three stunna’, he brought a sausage slowly up to his mouth and chewed methodically, thoughtfully.
Grease dribbled down his chin and he wiped it off absently, his concentration unbroken. He seemed like a mighty king or chieftain on his thrown I thought; he was unhurried, not bothered by anything, secure in his massive strength or massive self-confidence, or whatever it was. He was in his element – in the fortress of his own strength, so to speak, and nothing could touch him there.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this made me feel so peculiar. Maybe because I couldn’t imagine how you could get to be like that. What did it feel like to be so solid and so sure of yourself? I wondered at this as I looked at him, but as I did so I became aware that there was now the unmistakable hint of a threat there. The guy had noticed me staring at him and he didn’t like it. I withdrew my attention.
Everything was very bright and garish in the cafe and the general hubbub of conversation was making my head spin. The whole place was taking on a distinctly lurid and oppressive appearance. A girl was standing nearby repeating with growing impatience, “Number 22 – double egg, chips and beans”.
I came back to reality with a jolt as I realized that number 22 was me. “Uh, yeah, over here” I said. My voice sounded unnatural and weak in my own ears, and I felt a wave of embarrassment sweeping over me. She put the plate on the table in front of me without looking at me.
I ate the food as quickly as I could, in a hurry to get out of the place. I didn’t like the hubbub of all the people talking, and the radio station grated on my nerves in a particularly ghastly way. Reality seemed cheap and nasty, and all the people in the cafe seemed – to my eyes – to be oppressively solid and invulnerable, while I felt flimsy and insubstantial. I didn’t feel as if I belonged. I couldn’t hack it.
Back outside on the main road the sensation eased up a bit. I walked in the direction of Oval Mansions, the nearest friendly port of call to where I was. I could drop in on Speedy Pete, see what was going on with him. That would be reasonably convivial at least, even if Pete was as full of shit as ever.
Speedy Pete was the kind of guy who never stopped talking. Hence his name. He had certain key areas of interest, which he returned to again and again, with an unusual (if not to say unnatural) degree of intensity. One topic was sex, and in particular his morbid suspicion that women somehow wanted to drain some sort of vital energy from him. At such times an urgent note of seriousness would enter his voice and he would become conspiratorial in a curiously paternal way – “Don’t let them suck the balls, Alan,” he would say, his voice hoarse with concern, “Never let them suck the balls…”
The other key topic was drugs, which clearly did drain something out of him – probably his ability to know what reality was anymore. Contemplating this, it occurred to me that I really wasn’t feeling up to a visit to Speedy Pete. So who else did I know around these parts?
Well, there was Jamie. Jamie would undoubtedly be in his squat at this time of the day. Trying to come up with a new scam, some new way of getting a few pounds together – it occurred to me that if I went along I would undoubtedly get swept along in Jamie’s latest scheme. I’d get suckered into it one way or another and that’d be the whole day gone. Of course, there was always the chance that at the end of it all we’d have the money for a ten bag and a few cans at least, but somehow the thought of it all left me cold. I just couldn’t be bothered with the wretched rigmarole of it I realized – yet another wasted day, yet another day hijacked in the cause of getting wasted. And then the next day – if I was still there, which I usually was since I would be too wasted to go anywhere – it’d be the same old thing all over again….
So that rules Jamie out I thought. What about dropping in on Gerry? I pondered for a moment on mad Gerry and his habit of telling appalling lies about the marvellous spectacular things that he had done, the fights he had been in, the women he had slept with, the drug-deals that he had been a party to. Now that was something I really didn’t have the stomach for. Okay, Gerry could be funny sometimes, he used to have a few pretty good mad routines that he would go into, manic ‘in your face’ acts that would crack everyone up. These days however he never quite seemed as funny as he used to. That was the thing about Gerry – when you first met him you were impressed, but later on you would find yourself going to considerable lengths to avoid the mad bastard.
It was at this point that I started to wonder if I actually wanted to see anyone that I knew. The next thing that I started to wonder about was – “how come all my friends were such fucked-up wasters?” The answer to this question wasn’t particularly hard to answer.