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Although it is often true that the best nights out are the most impromptu, it would be perhaps unfair to say the opposite of the organised. Not the worst, no, but, more regularly than not, a disappointment. Such is the weight of expectation, you might say! and you would be right but please do not interrupt me for my thoughts are freeflowing, my words a chain reaction, a hiccup followed by a burp. Within a few seconds of him announcing his resignation back in March, I was, already in the spirit of mild drunken merriment, anticipating his leaving celebrations. Albeit ‘celebrations’ is too grand a word for what would be not much more than old work friends gathered in a familiar bar. And as true as it is that the best nights out are the most impromptu, I still greatly looked forward to the evening, leaving the flat that morning having told the cat, in an apologetic tone, that I would be home late but, hopefully, not too late. She did not listen, could not hear me over the sound of her own eating. I put my hand there between her twitching shoulder blades, the soft blue fur shifting in the titanic sunlight of morning’s east.
    My wallet was empty; its leather smooth from the oil of my fingertips over many years and the chamois of my arsepocket. Before I left the office building, at the bottom of the stairs and the smell of the latrines coursing out over everything, humid and sickly, I looked for my wallet and found it in my arsepocket; to myself I said—‘You fuckin idiot.’ The meat market, too, is beginning to smell ripe in the armpit of midc spring heat, even after it has been cleaned, the men there in white wellies, smoking cigarettes beneath the glass shelter.
    I am not wholly certain that years (plural) feels like years ago (plural). There may be a mistranslation in what I understood about a year previously, for now it is quite insignificant. Do not accuse me of blaming the pandemic! no, I blame age. Soon, I will be forty and I am going nowhere. In twenty-nineteen, we visited this particular bar a lot. I lived down the road in Whitechapel—staggering distance—and was refreshingly optimistic about the future. At the time, twenty-nineteen had been a good year and would continue to be a good year, getting even better. It was part of a facile chain of bars but it was set in an opulent marble old bank, as much of the City is, so that it eventually gets taken for granted and too seldom does one crane their neck to appreciate the existing structures that house the most unassuming of franchises. On Thursdays, we gathered for drinks, all packed in there, shoulder to shoulder, mouths close enough to kiss, and at eight o’clock someone set up on a table and music turned up for an area cleared, as we retreated out back for a cigarette and I would, begrudgingly, roll for everyone, for it was quieter there and you could tell jokes and hear yourself laugh until so many of the windows around us were dark and the night stretched up into the sky and we were good with booze and 4/4 rhythms. It was busy back then, like everyone in that portion of city who could make it was there.
    That was so long ago I do not like to think of it.
    The atmosphere was conspicuous upon my arrival. The group was tucked in a corner and an exchange was taking place between some of the group—already, I noticed, exhibiting signs of inebriation—and one of the floor supervisors. Rather than an entrance of warm hellos and hugs, I was greeted as though I had just returned from a two-minute mission to Tescos for gum rather than months away from friends I saw daily. I opened and closed my mouth many times, many times, not saying anything but holding air there between my lips for all to see, and I stroked my own fingers and then, as carefully as I could, I walked backwards into the centre of the bar, beside some strangers, and acted as though someone none of them knew had sent me a text of minor-to-medium importance. I bought two drinks and then I stood there watching as my friends glazed outwards and around. Some had gained weight—as had I, mind—others had lost it, some had lost hair or changed their sense of style, some just smelled different from their diet not eau de toilette, some sagged a little under the gravity of aging. I went back over; the floor supervisor had gone; there were salesmen (sponsors) and tin buckets, ice, bottlecaps, shotglasses, lemon rinds, spills and soupy alcohol sticking up the varnish. Seeing things the way they were and feeling things the way I felt them, I should have left the bar, but instead I greeted those who arrived as I had wished to be greeted, and slowly, like a punchline being explained, sensed all joy leaving me. Indeed I had felt more happiness earlier in the day at the boulangerie as I seized a chicken sandwich and all of the poppy seeds scratched the greaseproof paper. When friends spoke to me, I became irritated and told them about it—‘You don’t have to explain everything,’ I said—‘Just cut to the chase.’ Then they felt awkward about talking to me. There were many in the group of old colleagues and older office rent I did not recognise. Our little corner became more and more congested. The dancefloor was filled with tables I had expected to be cleared away. Everyone spoke such nonsense. They did shots. I flicked my head this way & that. If I had been lucid, I would have walked away! Why did I not? I had invited three old friends to attend, people I used to drink with back in twenty-nineteen. They would be here shortly; I told everyone they were coming because they had told me they were coming; they would be here shortly. You remember him, don’t you? And her? Remember that time? They’ll be here shortly. What did he used to drink? No, he has a kid now. She’s loved-up, is she? I didn’t know she was with anyone. We kept in touch. Nah, she left that advertising agency, think she’s back with a contractor. Fuck knows where he is. I saw him back in—what’sit?—November? See him a bit, to be fair. He’s massive. What was the name of his bird, again? Good laugh. Punching, totally. Wray & Nephews and ginger beer. Vodka lime soda. Think he just has a beer, whatever’s on. They‘ll be here soon. What time is it? Nah, they’ll be here.
    The hours felt like a moment. No sooner had my friend asked what was wrong than I started—‘You know every one of those cunts asked for a drink? You think they’re gonna get me one in return?’ He laughed at me and slapped my shoulder with big teeth, asked me why. ‘Seemed polite. I didn’t think they’d take me up on it. Thought everyone was in their own rounds. I’m fuckin skint, brev, and none of those fuckers are gonna buy me one in return. No one knows how to conduct themselves in the pub anymore. It’s a fuckin tragedy.’ He laughed much more until he got a grin out of me. I thanked him for carrying the drinks to everyone, as I was shaking.
    ‘We’re going to the F—y,’ they said.
    I shook my head—‘Fuck you going there for? You know, back in the day that place was just full of birds—straight off the home county trains, none of them worked in the city, just off the train all dolled up—doing laps of the place, looking to bag a banker. Going round & round. Relentless. You know how there’d be lads in their souped-up Novas doing laps round the town centre all Saturday after—?’ ‘You coming?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘Come on.’ ‘Nah, this’ll be a moment, a crossroads, I’ll feel better about this tomorrow.’
    I will feel better about this tomorrow.
    I will feel better about this tomorrow.
    Because I did this, I will feel better tomorrow.
    My head was on the train window. Off the earth, the frogs, the tracks, wheels, suspension, steel undercarriage, the cushioned seat, glass window reinforced, my hair and skin pulled neatly against my skull moving up & down. It might have appeared to the casual onlooker as though I were deep in thought, but I was not. My mind was vacant. In twenty-nineteen it was a walk via the chickenshop or a black cab and a chinwag, but now it is an intercity train and a constant measure of one’s bladder capacity against the remaining journey. It was not too late and still I did not pass a single soul on my walk home from the station. For reasons unknown, I had turned my headphones up until a sharp pain numbed my ears. The air was cool. Everything earthly was cut into the nightsky. I tapped bollards with my fingers. The cat sung at me as soon as I walked in the door. She went out to sniff the corridor then came at my thighs with her claws, yowling for food. I can hear her eating in the hallway. I put a kettle of water on for the pasta. Two teaspoons of salt. I reached out to no one. ‘Sorry, mate,’ I said to her. She finished her food, then sat on the kitchen floor next to me and the hob, cleaning herself. I put Bolognese in a small pan on the hob to heat back up, asking about her day. The booze hits heavier now. It will not be worth it, I know, but I will feel better about this—about everything—tomorrow.