Authors: Tom Campbell
To Mum and Dad
Also available by Tom Campbell
At its best, London can provide what is amongst the highest quality of life to be found anywhere. Unfortunately, this is not the universal experience of Londoners.
The London Plan
, Section 1.44
‘Fuck you,’ said Adam. ‘Verb.’
‘Fuck you, you fuck – noun,’ said Carl.
‘Fuck you, you fucking – adjective – fuck.’
‘Well, fucking – adverb – fuck you, you fucking fuck.’
Adam laughed. ‘You bastard,’ he said.
‘So what, swearing is funny now?’ said Alice.
‘No,’ said Adam. ‘Swearing isn’t funny.
But James wasn’t sure how funny they were. He may not have been much of a comic himself, but at least he usually knew
to laugh. Tonight, though, it seemed he couldn’t even manage that: there was a dullness to him that made even smiling an effort. There was a woman there with them he’d never met before, Olivia, and she wasn’t being particularly funny or laughing much either. But that was no consolation because she had other, unspecified talents. She wasn’t what one would ordinarily call pretty – she had one of those flat, old-fashioned faces – but she was really posh, posher even than Adam, and James knew that meant she had to be assessed differently. In fact, for all he knew, it might mean that she was actually very beautiful.
It didn’t help that the restaurant was just about the most expensive he had ever been to in his life. The address in Farringdon could have meant anything, but the inconspicuous entrance, tucked away on a terraced side street, its dark front door and small square windows should have raised alarm bells. The booby traps and unamusing quirks scattered across the English class system were not something James had ever navigated with ease, but he did know this much: anything this understated had to be classy, which meant that it had to be costly. He had no idea how much his meal was, but certainly enough to ruin every mouthful, and the drink was just as problematic for Carl, like James, was only capable of judging wine on the basis of price and so had ordered the most expensive bottles he could find.
But the real problem tonight was Alice. Even more than Adam and Carl, he was worried about Alice. She was on especially good form, which was likely to mean one of two things – either she was notching up another of her triumphs at the newspaper, or else she’d met someone. Another glamorous and improbably well-known boyfriend. It was getting out of hand: the last one, an incredible sod, had kept cropping up on the radio, and Alice herself was starting to become someone who wasn’t famous, but who famous people knew and liked – something, James had learnt, which was actually much better, more desirable and harder to achieve.
In truth, ever since Alice had stopped being a teacher, James had found their friendship difficult to sustain. He was reasonably confident that he still earned more than her, but that was no comfort. She was in the kind of profession where success was measured in ways other than money and anyway, crucially, she owned her flat. Eight years ago, with help from her parents, Alice had shrewdly bought a two-bedroom flat in Highgate that had immediately and relentlessly risen in value every month since.
James stared down at his plate. It was a Silk Road fusion restaurant, with dishes originating from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Armenia and a number of other countries he was unlikely ever to visit. In the face of such a range, it was almost inevitable that he would choose poorly, and he was now facing a pretentious, unpalatable mess. James’s semiotic analysis bordered on the dysfunctionally superstitious. Was his dinner a symbol of globalisation? Or did it represent more personal failings? He looked across the table – Adam had chosen some crisp and attractive spinach pancakes and Carl was oafishly enjoying his skewed kebab and chips. Christ, he thought, it never used to be like this. When did enjoying oneself become such terribly hard work?
‘Mine isn’t any good either,’ said Felix, with a friendly smile. ‘I think this place is overrated. Just like everything else.’
James smiled back. As seemed to happen more and more often, the person he was getting on with the best was the one he knew the least: Felix Selwood, whom he knew nothing about other than he was clever and worked in advertising. It was another of Adam’s achievements that he had managed to acquire a varied and high-quality collection of close friends
‘And, sorry – what is it you do? Adam did tell me, but I’m not sure if I quite understood him. Something to do with local government?’
‘Sort of. I work in town planning,’ said James with immense cautiousness.
‘That sounds interesting.’
Yes, his job was interesting – at least James had thought so once, and there were, in theory, still interesting things to do: masterplans to produce, jobs to create, leisure centres to build, homes to knock down, communities to displace. These were all real and substantial things – more real, surely, than what the others did for a living.
‘So what does a town planner actually do every day?’
By way of a response, James decided to go to the toilet, though it was hardly a sustainable solution. At least with the washrooms he was getting some value for money for, in contrast to the restaurant itself, they were idiotically overwhelming. Here, everything was superfluous, far too large and symptomatic of a civilisation on the brink of collapse. Limestone basins with gushing brass taps, dramatic mirrors with elaborate gold-gilded frames, a mosaic of cool cream and blue glass tiles, all pointlessly serviced by silent black men with soft hands. He removed his glasses, held his wrists and then temples under very cold water and breathed slowly. The basin was so wide and deep that he could comfortably fit his entire head in it while he wondered what on earth he was doing here.
In theory they were all there to congratulate Adam on a significant promotion. But that was hardly a cause for celebration. James tried to think back to the last time he had actually enjoyed his friends’ success. He could recall being drunk and happy at Alice’s twenty-eighth birthday party, and had been genuinely pleased when Carl had got engaged to Jane. But that was all a long time ago. Since then there had been many successful parties, many promotions and Carl was now going out with Zoe. How bad had things got? Had it got to the point where he actually disliked his closest friends? When had that started? Of course, that was one of the principal problems in doing your degree at the London School of Economics, the thing that they never mentioned in the prospectus: all the friends you made would go on to become insufferable wankers. Or was it just capitalism that had fucked everything up for them? Surely things wouldn’t be so bad if Adam and Carl worked in the public sector? Wouldn’t it be better if
worked in the public sector? All James knew for sure was that he couldn’t stay with his head in the basin forever, and that he very much wanted to be home.
‘Are you okay?’
James jerked his head up and put his glasses back on. It was Felix. Time passed differently under water and he couldn’t be sure how long he’d been there.
‘No,’ said James. ‘No, I don’t think I am.’
Felix nodded. He didn’t look like Adam, he didn’t have vigorous dark hair and a big upper-middle class forehead, and he didn’t look like Carl with pale proletariat skin and a brutish square face. For the moment, that would just have to do, and James had the sense that he was safe, that Felix wouldn’t make things any worse.
‘Have you had too much to drink?’
James probably had, but that was hardly the problem. It wasn’t him that was ill, it was everything else. The whole migraine world.
‘I hate my friends,’ said James. ‘They’re all awful.’
‘Yes,’ said Felix. ‘I think they probably are.’
A black man handed James a white towel and he held it to his face and hair. It smelt of apples and lemons.
‘We don’t have to go back,’ said Felix. ‘It’s fine to stay here if you’re not feeling up to it.’
James nodded. It would be nice to put his head back into the sink and stay there indefinitely, for his heart to slow down and his blood to cool, perhaps to let water erosion take its course and shape him into someone else.
‘No, it’s fine,’ said James. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be along in a minute.’
James waited until Felix left, and then felt inside his trouser pocket for where he knew there was a ten-pound note. He didn’t really know what he was doing, he didn’t really like what he was doing, but he wanted to give some money to the only person in the building who had less than him. He put the note on a little silver dish. The attendant was at least fifty years old. He looked at it with eyes full of sorrow, but didn’t say anything.
When he got back to the table, things were only marginally better. People weren’t making jokes any more and so he didn’t have to laugh or try to say something funny. Instead, they were having an argument. But the difficulty was that they weren’t arguing about music or sport or even politics – they were arguing about the economy. And it wasn’t something easy like what a bunch of fuckers the bankers were, but rather what seemed to be a reasonably technical discussion around the merits of fiscal investment versus monetary expansion, and their associated inflationary risks. Again, James could only look at his friends in dismay. Okay, Carl worked in finance and Alice wrote for newspapers, but how on earth did Adam get to know about this kind of shit? He was a lawyer, with a degree in English Literature, and yet here he was sounding perfectly knowledgeable about macroeconomics. God, he even seemed to know something about
Increasingly, on nights like this, James felt as if Adam and Carl and Alice and everyone else were the adults, and that he was no more than their teenage nephew. They had grown up in ways he never had, and maybe, he was now beginning to fear, never would. It was more than simply wives and careers, money and mortgages – they had mastered the very principles of adulthood, while he was still watching, learning, aping them. Having an informed position on the economy was part of this, and James was frantically trying to think of something wise and insightful to say, but it was no good – anything he could come up with would either be truthful and naive, or else false and pompous. It was so much hard work, having to pretend he understood what was going on in the world, to have a view on what was going to happen next. And God, hadn’t it been so much better when all that anyone ever did was get pissed and talk about girls?
The race of life, so people were often saying, is a marathon and not a sprint. But if that was really the case, why was everybody else sprinting? None of the others seemed to be pacing themselves, taking it easy and slowing down a bit. They had come flying out of the blocks immediately upon graduating and now, ten years later, seemed to be going faster than ever. Even the recession didn’t seem to be holding them back. James had had high hopes for it, he had watched banks implode and stock markets fall with mounting excitement, but incredibly – and this was scarcely believable – it now seemed to be affecting
more than any of the others. It was Southwark Council that had frozen salaries, instigated redundancy programmes and now wanted to renegotiate his pension plan. And it was his landlord who had announced that his monthly rent would have to go up, while everyone else kept marvelling at how low their mortgage repayments had become.