No, there’s no reason to go home, not when home is a town like Southend. I’d left in a blaze when I was twenty, and in the eight years since then I’d avoided going back at all unless forced by the big things – Christmasses, deaths. But I’d got in a state one night after my marriage ended and called Stokes, a mate from when we were kids. He suggested coming home for a few days, just get out of Brighton and clear my head. “A few days?” I said. “All right, one night,” he said, which, after a great deal of further bargaining, I agreed to. I had been drinking.
Stokes wasn’t at the station when I arrived. I wasn’t surprised. He’d never been very reliable. Part of me was even hoping he wouldn’t show up at all – that he’d forgotten I was coming, or was somewhere else altogether, hungover and phoneless – because I was nervous about seeing him again. We’d been pretty tight as teenagers, loping around town and trying to avoid the trouble we drew for being camp (me) or genuinely gay (Stokes) in such a dirty, violent little resort as this. I’d got out and shaped up, doing most of a degree in literature in Sussex before getting production work with a web magazine down the road in Brighton, where I still lived. Okay, it wasn’t exactly glory, but it had to be better than ending up here, like Stokes had. Whatever kept him in Southend – a lack of ambition; or maybe he was just masochistic like that – it made me wonder whether there was too much open ground between us these days.
I stood and watched the May Day shoppers go by in the High Street, and it was grim reading. Hard-faced men with sunglasses on top of shaved heads, their hands balled into permanent fists. Skinny young guys in polo shirts with astonishingly bad hairstyles. Frowning, tired women. Even the pigeons looked depressed. One walked up and beaked at a discarded chip by my feet. Then, apparently finding it all too much effort, it just stopped and stared ahead of itself, puffing out its little chest as it did so in what I swear was a sigh. I was about to turn back to catch the next train out of there when someone whopped me on the shoulder from behind. It was Stokes. No backing out now then.
“Here he is,” he said, and leaned in for a hug. If I’d been anxious about our meeting, he obviously wasn‘t, and it helped me relax a little. “Jesus, Jim, you look healthy.”
“Thanks,” I said, and pulled back to take him in. He was as small and thin and ragged as ever. He was wearing the same leather jacket he had on the last time I‘d seen him. It was new then, but now it looked cracked and coarse and old. The dirty blonde roots showed in his dyed black hair, and his left eye was shockingly bloodshot. Apart from the eye, though, he hadn’t changed at all: he still looked like a divorced cat with a drink problem. “You look awful,” I said.
“I’ve changed everything but my ways,” he said, grinning. “Right, think you can face a pint on the seafront without jumping in and swimming off?”
“We’ll see how we get on.”
“Good boy,” he said, and stepped off, pointing as he went to a dog turd the size of a croissant. “Come on, we’ll take the scenic route.”
The eye thing had happened about a year ago and was probably permanent, Stokes explained on the roadside patio of a dubious pub overlooking the beach. Some old boyfriend had gone nuts in a restaurant and attacked him with a chopstick. The stick had ended up embedded an inch into Stokes’ eye socket.
“The paramedics make you hold the thing in place like this,” he said, holding a palm flat over his face but with the middle fingers slightly parted, creating a cleft to secure the chopstick.
“It’s so you can’t move your eye. If you don’t keep it still, you’re going to lose it.” He was fascinated by this fact, as though the most remarkable part of the story was the science of it, not the awful injury he had experienced. I bet that’s exactly how he was in the ambulance at the time too.
“And do you know what happens then?”, he said.
“What?”, I replied, wincing.
“You keep your fucking eye still, that’s what.”
Stokes always talked like that: in punchlines, and for the benefit of not just you, his official audience, but of anyone else in earshot too. You were never quite having a private conversation with him. We were standing next to a table of three other drinkers – a couple and their male friend. They’d missed most of Stokes’ anecdote, but the force of his delivery, and the story’s gruesome detail, had brought them into his orbit in time for the pay-off line. The two men shook their heads in amusement and laughed into their pints. The woman made a play of being appalled but was clearly as entertained as the others. She asked Stokes to show her the eye. He happily bent towards her, widening the lids with his fingers to show her the eyeball and its streaked red fullness – a halved grapefruit.
“Oh, that is rank,” she said, shuddering. “Who was it did that?”
“Just an old mate,” Stokes replied.
The man on my side of the table, the friend of the couple, put down his beer. “Bet you ain’t mates now though, right?”
“Nah, we still see each other sometimes. He’s got a nice big cock he lets me suck now and then, so I let him off.”
I was worried he’d do this. Stokes was an antagonistic little fucker. If there’s any place in Southend that’s not problematic for an openly gay man, a pub on the seafront is not it – which was exactly why he’d said it. As he delivered the line, the two men pulled their faces back as though confronted with a rotten smell. Stokes gave them a wink and lifted his drink, letting the sentiment hang in the air. And then the bastard went inside for a piss, leaving me standing there with the rough, offended threesome.
But they didn’t react. The woman busied herself with her phone; the two men started talking to each other, although with voices slightly lowered. I tried, but couldn’t make out what they were saying – probably planning to cut our heads off, I thought. Stokes returned, and that was that: we just walked away without consequence, two free men.
“Thanks for leaving me with those animals,” I said as we walked into the next pub.
“Get us a bag of crisps while you’re at the bar,” Stokes said.
“I’m serious. You know what people round here are like.”
“Yeah, stupid and prejudiced. Not like you, thank God,” he said, in a tone that flew as cleanly as a bowling ball between sincerity and sarcasm. “Get the crinkly ones.”
It was a surprisingly hot day, given the time of year, and it took only a couple of pints to render us silent and dumb in the unseasonable warmth. But the silence between us was comfortable, like it had been when we were younger and sat in parks working hard to smoke ourselves into addiction. Stokes turned a cardboard beer mat over and over in his fingers without boredom. I watched the sea. When a cloud hid the sun, the water went dull; when the sun shone the sea was a floor of lights. I had to remind myself I was separated from my wife and in a place I despised.
After a while I spoke. “You know, the hardest thing is you can stop them whenever you want – the thoughts. It’s that easy; you just stop. If I tell someone something, they can’t prove I’ve ever felt differently.” I had no idea what I was saying.
“Sarah’s a lovely girl, but you two got married too young,” said Stokes, which may or may not have been relevant.
I went into the bar and got us two more beers. When I came back out, people were standing around the bench we’d been sitting at. I pushed through to see Stokes lying on the pavement with his shirt half pulled off, his face a bloody mask.
I dropped the drinks and went to him. He looked at me, but the eyes behind the mask were uncomprehending, faraway, like those of a deer or a very elderly person. I lifted his head and told him his name many times. Slowly the mind returned to the eyes, and eventually he was able to let me help him sit up. For all the blood, he didn’t seem badly hurt.
“Was it those blokes from before?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, moving his jaw around in his hand, testing it for damage. “Someone else.”
“Yep, that’s the fella.”
I turned to the other drinkers. “What happened?” I said. But none of them gave anything like a reply. They’d already lost interest and gone back to their separate groups. They were more of the same people I’d seen and avoided all my life – sunburned, topless Essex skinheads, all of them smooth and red as crabs, built for aggro. They’d seen all this before. It could have been one of them. It was one of them. It was all of them, always.
“Did you say something to somebody?” I said to Stokes, who had now wiped most of the blood away from his cheek and was, incredibly, sipping his new pint and smoking a roll-up, savouring them, like a man who‘d just finished a tedious but necessary piece of work.
“What’s the time?” he replied.
“That’s what you said?”
“No, I’m asking you: what’s the time?”
“Five forty. What happened, Stokes?”
“Drink up then, it’s two for one at the Minerva from six.”
We looked at each other. Suddenly I felt we’d already lived for a very long time. We weren’t yet thirty, but were we still young? Could we still say that?
We drank up and went to the Minerva.
(c) Martin Cornwell 2011