T/W: Covid, swearing
“Grow up,” Mum said as she cleared the last remnants of the Chinese takeaway from the kitchen table. “Honestly, Steve. How can you expect our son to take you seriously?”
“Ha! Bit late for that.”
Mum didn’t answer, she just looked at Dad until he sighed and removed the chopsticks from his upper lip. He cleared his throat and put on an exaggerated serious expression, eyeballing me with his chin resting on one fist.
“Son,” he began with sufficient gravitas that Mum threw her hands in the air. “Have you thought any more about what you’d like to do for a job, you know, long term?”
Now, if he’d asked me this pre-Covid I would probably have rolled my eyes and pointed out that I had a job waiting tables at Benedictine’s, the only up-market restaurant in town. But I no longer felt that way and considered my words carefully.
“I’d like to get into the fitness industry,” I said. “Something rewarding, you know, where I can really help people.”
“Like a physiotherapist?” Mum asked, pausing with her rubber gloved hands in the foaming sink.
“Yeah, maybe. Something like that.”
Dad’s head tilted to one side. “Have you looked at how to go about doing that?”
“Yes. I have.” But I’d only looked and thought. Up until this point I hadn’t actually said it out loud and doing so abruptly made it feel real. Possible. “I think I’m going to do it.”
“Well, that sounds like a great idea,” Dad said. “And when my hip plays up, you can give me free sessions.”
“Hey, if anyone is getting free physio, it’s me. I’m the one that grew him in my belly.”
“Oh, get off it, Christine! He’s nineteen. You can’t use that forever!”
“I bloody well can.”
And so it continued as I grabbed a tea-towel to dry the dishes whilst Dad cleaned the table. They were so effortless together; not like Jeff’s parents who threatened divorce every six months, breaking furniture in the process.
Dad snuck up behind Mum and grunted like a pig into her neck, making her giggle. I smiled; their little shows of affection no longer bothered me the way they used to. Would I ever have that with someone? I hoped so. Except the only time I’d felt even remotely comfortable around a girl had been when Mrs Howe shuffled us around in chemistry and made Deborah Cassidy my lab partner.
Together we’d watched the lithium strip fizz and skim across the water’s surface, her long reddish-brown ponytail tickling my arm when I scooched closer, and I’d done absolutely nothing about my warm fuzzy feelings. Why? Because I’d thought she was too nice.
Too nice. What an idiot.
“You looking forward to tonight?” Mum asked.
I nodded. First time going out since restrictions were lifted. It felt weird, like I was about to go trespassing with a corrupt police officer reassuring me that it would be alright.
“It’ll be good to see the lads.” I shrugged on my brown leather jacket, kissed Mum on the cheek and waved to Dad who was studying the TV Guide. “Who knows, I might even have fun.”
As I walked into the town centre, I was struck by how everything appeared to be exactly the same and yet, when I looked closer, I noticed all the darkened shop windows peppering the streets. Bean Bag, my favourite independent coffee house that did a wicked Columbian blend, was gone. Joe’s, a tiny cubby-hold of a bar that played reggae music: gone. Ominous reminders lest I dare move on too quickly.
The empty shops eyed me reproachfully as I headed to Wetherspoons, the corporate machine, but it was the cheapest place. I had only recently come back off furlough, Jeff worked at a car dealership and I was pretty sure Grimshaw was still unemployed.
I’d only kept in contact with them via Facebook and Instagram. They had invited me to numerous gatherings of varying legality, but Mum being a doctor made me keep my distance. It felt like the right thing to do and besides, I quite liked my own company.
But even I got bored after a while. It was then that I started going for long aimless walks, thinking about my life. Googling job adverts into the early hours, doing personality quizzes that told me what profession best suited me, which footballer I most resembled and what my preferred alcoholic beverage (lager) said about my inner-self (goal-orientated and sociable).
I tried writing poetry and then burnt it.
Looking back, I think the pandemic gave out existential crises like vaccinations: This Saturday night at Epiphany - Free Shots!
Chuckling at my own wit, I turned down Count Street and stopped dead, causing the man walking behind me to curse and overtake, shooting me a dirty look as he did so. I just couldn’t believe how busy it was; I hadn’t seen so many people in one place for what felt like ten years. All the tables were full with people standing with their drinks here and there, presumably having failed to find a place to rest their glasses.
I fingered the facemask in my jacket pocket (I still carried one just in case) but what was the point? I saw literally no one else wearing one.
My mind projected an image of the government’s chief scientific advisor, Chris Witty, shaking his head in bereft disappointment. I’m double-jabbed, I thought. Mum and Dad are double-jabbed. It’s OK. I pushed open the door and blinked at the roar of voices, laughter and pop music. They wouldn’t allow it if it wasn’t OK.
I scanned the heads, the early dancefloor participants and the fruit machine junkies. It was a massive Wetherspoons with hidden rooms, alcoves and two floors, I could be looking for—
“Hey T-Bone! You made it!”
I shuddered at the nickname I had managed to forget, and spotted Jeff waving from a table near the bar. Grimshaw was seated opposite, smiling and lifting his pint in salute. I smiled back and began excuse-ing my way over.
As I shuffled past a woman with long blonde hair, I caught a whiff of her sweet perfume mingled with cigarette smoke and almost gagged. I wasn’t sure if it was worse than the general pervading scent of stale alcohol, sweat and Febreze, but it was close. Dear God, did it always smell like this in here?
They hadn’t changed, which was comforting after the gloomy shopfronts. They could easily be mistaken for brothers. Well, Grimshaw’s black hair was longer, but in no discernible style. They wore the same denim and black t-shirt combo and I realised I was dressed quite smart in comparison with my dark trousers and blue checked shirt. That had never been the case before, had it?
A pint was thrust in front of me as I sat down next to Jeff, who slapped me hard between the shoulder blades. “It’s about time!”
“Yeah,” Grimshaw said. “Thought you were going to bottle it like Dave.”
“Oh?” I looked to Jeff, confused. I liked Dave; he was my pre-pandemic gym buddy. A good spotter with a real talent for getting me to push for the burn.
“Apparently,” Jeff said. “Dave doesn’t go out anymore and doesn’t drink. At all. He’s on a ‘health kick’.”
Grimshaw said, “What a pussy.”
I winced, but said nothing and felt my self-respect slam the door on the way out. And I’d thought the absence of Covid restrictions would be the thing that made it weird.
Laughter bubbled from the surrounding tables and I told myself to relax. Stop thinking. Have some fun. One Direction started playing and I began tapping my foot under the table, and that was when the girls arrived.
Tally, Jeff’s girlfriend, shimmied over in a tight blue dress, smiling, looking glamorous as always. Her two friends were equally stunning in completely different ways. The one with her white-blond hair messed up with wax, had a severe air about her. I could imagine her commanding executives around a London office… or troops on a battlefield. Whilst the red-head in the white tank-top and pale-blue jeans looked, well, lovely. She also looked oddly familiar.
“Hey boys,” Tally said. She perched herself on Jeff’s right knee and wriggled as he pinched her bottom before introducing her friends. “This is Maz and Deborah.”
My heart stopped.
“Come on girls,” Jeff said, pronouncing it like gauwlz, and dragged over a couple of stools for them. Maz and Deborah sat down, straight backed and crossed their legs.
“Hi,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Alright,” Maz said. She didn’t look alright; she looked pissed off though it may have just been her style.
I smiled politely and looked to Deborah. Her eyes were a gorgeous deep brown like expensive chocolate and I found myself wondering if Valentine’s Day had already happened this year.
One Direction were still playing and my mind suddenly belted out “You don’t know you’re beautiful!” and I blushed, grinning stupidly.
Then, she saved me. “Hey, weren’t we in the same chemistry class? Anthony, right?”
Yes! She remembered me. And not as Tony or the cringe-worthy T-Bone. Anthony. I slipped a little in love and all she’d done was say my name. What a loser.
“It’s my first time out since lockdown,” I said.
“Me too.” Her shoulders untensed. “How are you finding it?”
“Not sure. It feels strange.” I sensed Jeff’s disapproval and added, “Nice to be out though.”
Deborah leaned forwards. “Anthony, I, um—
“Who wants to play a drinking game?” Jeff asked. Deborah closed her mouth and leant back.
I could have killed him.
There was a general murmur of agreement and Jeff announced that we would be playing a new game that he had made up called Covid Confessions.
“It’s like ‘Have-You-Ever’, but with Covid,” he said. “If you’ve done it, you drink.”
His eyes twinkled with glee and a strong feeling of dread welled up, pressing against my skin from the inside.
“I’ll go first,” Jeff said. “I have never tested positive for Covid.” He took a slurp from his pint, eyeing me. Grimshaw also drank. No one else did. Then, it was my turn.
“Alright.” I stared at my pint, desperate to think of something everyone will have done. Something inoffensive. Neutral. “I have never watched the Covid briefing.”
Grimshaw said, “I have never worn a facemask to the supermarket,” and drank. Jeff and Tally also drank.
Maz stiffened. “Never?” she asked. “Why not?”
Grimshaw burped. “I’m exempt.”
“What? All of you?” Maz addressed the question to Tally, who didn’t meet her eyes.
They all nodded, smirking, and I willed the beer-infested carpet to swallow me whole.
Abruptly, Maz stood, picked up her drink and said “Bullshit” before leaving. I stared after her in admiration.
Tally called her back, though it was a little lacklustre; she didn’t actually move from Jeff’s lap. Deborah appeared torn and I gave her a look that I hoped was both sympathetic and riven with apology.
Jeff clinked pints with Grimshaw. “One down!”
I imagined Deborah hadn’t left because she’d come with Tally. That was usually the rule. The loyalty to the friend.
Was that why I was here? I suddenly felt obscenely out-of-place and embarrassed, but these were my oldest friends. We’d been through high school together. Smoked our first cigarettes, which Jeff stole from his mother’s handbag, behind the bike shelter during lunch break. Jeff and Grimshaw were the only ones who persevered with it though.
Deborah’s eyes met mine, but I couldn’t fathom what they said: indifference, anger… disgust? Please, don’t let it be that. I wanted to say that I wasn’t like them, that Jeff was a prick and I’d only come along out of some vague sense of loyalty. But that might just make me look worse than Jeff and that would not do. So, I kept my mouth shut and waited for someone else to speak.
“My turn,” Tally said. “I have never attended a party during lockdown.”
Everyone drank except me and Deborah. I cheered inside, certain that it wasn’t revulsion I was seeing. Or maybe I was just being pathetically hopeful.
“Come on, T-Bone,” Jeff said. “Drink up.”
I shrugged. “What? I didn’t go to any parties. I didn’t break the rules.”
“Fuck off. Everyone did.”
“Neither did I,” Deborah said.
Jeff glared. “Whatever. Some of us aren’t slaves to the system, you know, some of us didn’t like our freedom being taken away because of a cold."
I couldn’t stop myself glancing around to see if anyone had heard him say that. “Come on, Jeff. It was more than a cold. A lot of people died.”
He shook his head. “A lot of old people who would have probably died anyway.”
My mouth hung open and my gut went numb. “You can’t just—”
“Can’t what, T-Bone?”
I thought of the horror stories my mother had come home with over the past two years. The black bags under her eyes as she wept at the kitchen table over how many patients she’d lost that day. I thought of my grandmother, who I still hadn’t dared to visit. And I thought of myself, who I was and who I wanted to be.
“I don’t want to play this game,” I said. “It’s dumb.” My voice didn’t shake. I was solid and cold, imbued with self-righteousness. Maybe it was the half-pint of lager; I hadn’t drunk much over lockdown so I was possibly a total lightweight.
Jeff leant back in his chair. “Like that is it? Too good for the game? You’ve changed.”
“Change is good sometimes.”
I glanced again at Deborah and Jeff caught me. “Hmmm, I think I know what’s going on here. T-Bone’s got a bone on for Debs.” He lowered his voice, got close to me. His breath stank. “Maybe I should tell her how you got that nickname, eh? Casanova?”
Grimshaw snorted into his pint, slopping some of it onto the table.
Tally frowned. “I thought it was because you’re such a beef-cake,” she said, winking. “Is that not it?”
“Sadly no,” I said, standing up. I felt reckless, nauseated by Jeff and Grimshaw and myself for not immediately calling them out like Maz did. “They call me T-Bone because I once got a massive boner in P.E, alright? That’s the big secret. Enjoy it.”
There was a pause as the girls digested this new information before Tally and Jeff erupted with laughter. The ridiculous hooting kind that sounds unbelievably fake. He slapped his left knee with his open palm and squeezed Tally in a way that made her squeal.
I wanted to tell him to fuck off.
Every swear I knew paraded through my mind, but then two simpler words asserted themselves and I knew instantly that they were the right ones.
“Jeff,” I said. “Grow up.”
It hit the mark. His face twitched, unsure how to respond to this bizarre non-swear-word insult. I peeled a tenner from my wallet, tossed it on the table and, in a moment of wondrous self-confidence, I gestured for Deborah to come with me.
And she did.
We snaked though the tables and chairs towards the entrance where there was some space.
“Do you want to find Maz?” I asked.
“Yeah, hold on. I’ll call her.”
I stood there, waiting while she talked to Maz, trying not to stare. God she was beautiful. I wanted to bury my face in her hair, to reach out and brush her fingers which were tantalisingly close to mine. This was one of those moments people talk about, I realised. Don’t be an idiot.
She ended the call. “Maz’s upstairs. You coming?”
“Sure and, uh, Deborah—”
“Would you like to grab a coffee sometime?”
She tucked a loose strand of hair behind one ear and looked at me as if she was only just noticing me for the first time.
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”