Over Christmas and New Year I was rotten with flu and didn’t go out once. I stayed soberly at home beside the fire with the family and enjoyed every minute. The first time I ventured out, still feeling ropy, was on Saturday morning for a look around the shops. As I came out of Superdrug, I met Sasha. She was wrapped up warmly against the cold, except for her bosoms, which were recklessly exposed and showcased by a black, lacy push ’em up and point ’em out bra. We hadn’t seen each other for months and we warmly embraced. ‘Drink?’ I said. ‘Ship?’ Sasha had lost her purse again, she said, and was retracing her steps in the high street; but yes, marvellous, sauvignon blanc, dry, large one. So she went off to find her purse and I toddled the 50 yards down the road to the Ship and ordered a stiff Bombay and Fever Tree for me and a large sauvignon blanc for her, receiving 50 pence change from a 20 pound note. I carried the drinks outside and bagged a table.
It was pleasant to sit at a table next to the busy pavement with my first drink of the festive season and feel back in circulation among the high street shoppers. Presently, my old friend Tom came by. Spotting me, he leapt the knee-high plastic hedge and embraced and kissed me with his customary zeal. I hadn’t seen Tom for ages, either. He took a seat at my table and rolled himself a cigarette with trembling hands and related incidents from his Christmas bender. His face was crimson and his speech was thick and he seemed psychologically fragile, teetering on a brink between melancholy tears and helpless mirth.
His bender had begun when an old friend turned up, offering to help him over his grief for his recently deceased brother. That was three days earlier, maybe four. They had stolen a car and gone on a drug-fuelled road trip across three counties wearing pin-striped uniforms and hats stolen from an unattended pizza-delivery company van. Most of Tom’s narrative was remembered in the telling of it. It was a catalogue of drugs, madness and petty crime.
There was one aspect of their trip, however, that was touching. Tom loves the elderly, and amid the mayhem and criminality of his bender, he asked every ‘sweet old lady’ he saw to pose for a photograph. He took out his shattered old mobile and together we went through his collection. He had photographed them in the street and in supermarket aisles. The moral gulf between the sober kindness on the faces of these elderly folk and the drug-addled lunatic dressed as a pizza-delivery man who photographed them lent the portraits a satisfying emotional complexity. Reviewing his entire collection for the first time caused Tom to convulse silently and wipe away tears. Judging by the old ladies’ smiles, every one of them had taken to him immediately.
Then I braced myself for trouble. A leading town reprobate called Brewer had noticed us and was crossing the road and heading our way. Tom and he had had a vicious fight about a year before. Everyone present was off their heads, therefore details are necessarily vague, conflicting and disputed. Basically, a knife was brandished and Tom was bashed over the head with a frying pan so hard that he was concussed for several weeks. When he finally came to his senses, Tom stated a determination to kill this Brewer fellow. A reconciliation must have taken place, because Tom was docile and Brewer wanted only to offer us both a reverse hand-clasp of reprobate solidarity and a toke each on the joint he was smoking. As this was down to the roach and glistening with saliva, we thanked him kindly and declined it.
Next Sasha came puffing up full of apology for being so long and fell gratefully on her large wine. Actually, said Sasha, she had to come to the Ship anyway, as she was expecting to meet a drug dealer here at any minute. So we sat and chatted until this pleasant, uncynical young man arrived, and once the introductions were over, I was very kindly offered coke at £90 a gram. I thanked him kindly, saying the only thing I was interested in inhaling this week was a £2.50 tub of Vicks.
Then I took my leave and returned to home and hearth and hot lemon. Beside the fire, the chessboard was still out and the pieces as we had left them in an unfinished game. I poked the fire back into life and chucked on a eucalyptus log and then my grandson came sprinting into the room. ‘Whose go is it?’ I said. ‘Mine!’ he said. And so we sat down once more at the chessboard and resumed our game cosily beside the fire.
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