That had all been an hour ago. Now we were dancing together, all five of us, stains of cheap alcohol upon us, some smoking but not one of us concerned with trying to look anything close to cool. Each song that came roused on onwards until we were just a funky flailing mass of bad dancing and – now and then, when eyes were averted – stolen wet kisses.
There was sweat pouring off of us and smiles everywhere we could see. I danced over the space towards Francis and tapped him on the shoulder, shouted in his ear as he dipped his head to me.
I nodded, and turned to the other three. I didn’t bother asking them, I just made the sign with my hand. Afro and albino shook their heads. Redhair nodded and I moved over to her and put my ear by her mouth.
I nodded and danced to the bar where there was a huge crush. I was there for the duration of two songs I loved. I swore twice. The first time out loud and a large round man with a shaved head glared at me, so the second time it was silent. I bought the drinks and bullied my way out of the crowd, danced them back to my old friend and my new friends, and all the while there was a smile on my face.
I sent a text message to Anna. I told her I was drunk, at Fran’s friend’s place, that I was going to stay there. The girl’s name was something. I don’t remember, now. As we sat in the back of a late night taxi with her friend Chris sat across from us like a useless chaperone, she held my hand and stroked my leg. I spent more time making sure that Chris wasn’t watching than I did looking at her, but my hands were on her body anyway.
I’d never cheated on Anna. Not often. Just one time, after we’d kissed for the first time but before we were really going out. I’d been in Leeds, visiting a friend, and things had happened pretty much then as they had tonight. I’d never told Anna. I didn’t think that there was anything to tell her. At least, nothing so important. I didn’t want to upset her, and I knew that if I had told her – if I did tell her – then she would be upset, she wouldn’t understand. But to me it seemed very simple, very clear. But we never saw these things in quite the same way. We never saw anything in quite the same way, even when we agreed, and we agreed upon most things. Almost everything.
The headlights of other taxis washed over us from behind, throwing our shadows over Chris and over the plastic screen that separated us from the silent driver. It lit, also, the second folding seat, the one next to Chris. It was upright and on the back of it there was a red circle, and in the red circle there were block capitals in bright white. I read them.
DO YOU KNOW WHO’S BEHIND YOU?
I stared, taken aback, and read the words again. I was sure that I’d got them wrong the first time. But I read them again and I’d got it right the first time.
DO YOU KNOW WHO’S BEHIND YOU?
I craned my head in the seat and looked out of the rear window. A car close behind was hidden behind the brightness of its headlights. It seemed to be close enough to touch if only the glass wasn’t in the way. I heard the girl’s voice close to my ear.
“What are you doing?”
I turned back to her, twined my fingers around hers, and smiled my reassuring smile at her. The smile that would ensure she didn’t change her mind. I saw her eyes change a little and I knew that it had worked.
“Nothing really. Just looking.”
She looked at Chris, who was still staring resolutely out of the side window at the crowded takeaways and taxi offices and empty shops, and then she kissed me on my lips. I felt her tongue search for mine, moved my neck a little, and we were locked like that for a few short seconds. She pulled away with a smile on her face and ran her tongue over her lips, unconsciously. A deep noise came from within her, almost too quiet for me to hear. She closed her eyes, rested her head on my shoulder, and we drove through familiar streets made a little surreal by the alcohol and the weed and the flickering lights. We passed over one of the bridges and snaked through the city centre.
I couldn’t help but look again at the writing on the back of the chair. It was there, cryptic, an almost-warning.
DO YOU KNOW WHO’S BEHIND YOU?
I had the strange sensation that I was reading some kind of spell, something incantatory that I didn’t understand and that I should not look too long upon. But I couldn’t look away. Again there were fishhooks, this time in my eyes. I read it over and over again until the words began to loose any sense they might have had. Structure dissolved and as I looked away out of the window I had a feeling of disaster barely averted. Like I’d come home and found the gas left on just before I went to light a cigarette. Something that silly and seemingly fateful. As we wound on through the city centre and out into the residential streets that feeling stayed in the top of my mind, and I didn’t look back at the writing on the back of the plastic folding seat.
We’d long since passed by any streets that I recognised and were out half an hour’s walk from the city centre by the time Chris turned in his seat and spoke to the silent back of the driver.
“Left here, please.”
There was a grunt and we swung too quickly around the corner. Chris had to shoot a hand out to stop from sliding off of his seat. The three of us looked at each other with eyebrows raised. The girl giggled a little. I don’t think she would have if she’d been sober. I wouldn’t have laughed in sympathy if I’d been sober. But if we had been then I wouldn’t have been here with these two people I’d know only for a few hours. We were and I was, and that seemed to be that. I thought back over the night, back to Anna leaving us when the bell in the pub rang, running out after her and walking her to the taxi rank, meeting Francis in the queue outside the only half-decent club in town. Looking back on it, there didn’t seem to be any other way that the night could have gone. I remembered, too, Anna telling me on the telephone not to go to a club. Not to get too drunk. I thought of this and I didn’t feel anything in particular.
We drove down a terraced street with cars parked on the either side of the road. We were almost at the T junction at the far end when once more Chris turned in his seat and spoke.
“Just here, mate.”
The taxi slowed sharply. The three of us lurched forward a little.
His voice was a rough grumble. In it I could hear every smoky bar that he’d sat in and every cold he’d ever had. I took my wallet from my jacket before anybody else could move and pulled out a ten pound note. I folded it once and held it through the small hole in the plastic screen. A big hand took it from me.
“Keep the change, mate. Cheers.”
“Righto. Thank you.”
Chris slid the door open and stepped out onto the silent dead road.
The girl followed. Sophie.
There was a vague noise from the driver. I stepped out last as Chris was opening a black wrought-iron gate that came to the middle of his stomach.
I pushed the taxi door closed, and the second my hand had left the side of the vehicle there was a grind of gears and then the unhappy whine of the engine as the driver reversed all the way back the way we had come. His headlights lit us in pale yellow, then he turned violently and there was another crunch of gears before he disappeared down the main road. I looked at Sophie and smiled. She smiled back.
“Aren’t you sweet? Crikey. Nobody says crikey anymore.”
“I do. It’s a good word.”
“Okay. If you say so.”
We were inside in a small sitting room. On the small low wooden coffee table there were three steaming cups of coffee, a pack of cigarette papers, some rolling tobacco, and a small plastic Ziploc bag of skunk. The air was thick and heady with the smoke from the joint we were passing around.
There were posters on the walls of very different things. A cathedral in black and white, a print of a famous Magritte, Bob Marley with his eyes closed in rapture, a cartoon bear holding a beer glass with a forlorn look on his face. All over the floor there was the detritus of a party, things and arrangements that were familiar to me. Crushed beer cans, bottles of red wine half drunk that would soon turn to vinegar, small tumblers and coffee mugs doubling as makeshift ashtrays. I almost smiled at the number of memories that it brought back, sitting amidst the wreckage of a party, smoking weed, drunk. But there were too many bad memories that came conjoined with the good ones. Not enough on one side to smile, not enough on the other to frown.
Sophie and I were sat thigh-to-thigh on a sofa where the springs had failed a long time back, and Chris was holding a match to the last of the first joint in a large brown chair to our right. Between us the thin door to the hallway, to the left of Sophie and I, in front of Chris, the doorway – without a door – to the kitchen. It seemed immensely familiar, like it was a popular print of a famous painting that you’ll see in half of the houses you’ll go to in your life.
I didn’t think of any of this when I was there. I didn’t think of anything but how close her leg was to mine, and how the skin on her shoulder felt, and the smell of her perfume and her hair. I could wait a while longer. I knew what was going to happen. I was practised enough. Sometime soon, probably after the next joint, Chris would yawn, stand, and go up to his bedroom. And we’d wait and at the sound of a door closing above we’d kiss. And a few minutes after that we’d go upstairs together and take our clothes off in the dark and get into bed together. For now, though, I could wait.
“So is it just you two?”
“No, James lives here as well. He was at the club earlier. Did you see him?”
“I don’t know. What does he look like?”
At this, Chris laughed and then choked on the smoke. He coughed, laughed, did both at the same time, and motioned his hand towards Sophie. She grinned at him.
He nodded. She spoke.
“Uh, what does he look like? He looks like he came off the indie-kid conveyor belt.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. She could have been talking about me three years ago.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
She looked up and grinned at me.
Chris spoke before I could.
“It is. Trust me, it is.”
“Bloody fascists, the pair of you.”
We all laughed.
“Yeah, I think I saw him. He was sitting with you, right, Chris?”
“Every fucking time we go to a club he comes along, sits in the corner, and gets drunk, and then he leaves before everyone else. He never bloody dances.”
“Maybe he can’t dance.”
Sophie spoke, trying to hold back a fit of giggles.
“Didn’t seem to stop you.”
Chris leant forward from his chair and passed the joint to me. For the second time that night passing cigarettes our fingers touched for a little while longer than normal. I took it and I took a deep drag.
It happened just as I’d thought it would. Just as I’d known it would. After I’d passed the joint to Sophie, Chris had stood yawning and stretching. He reached down to his cup of tea, drained it, and went into the kitchen. I heard a cupboard open and close and then the sound of water running. He came back with a pint glass full of water in one hand. With his other hand he rubbed his bleary eyes. They were streaked red, like he’d just got off a long flight. I could feel the heat of Sophie’s body next to me. He spoke.
“Right. Goodnight, kids.”
“Goodnight. Sleep well.”
He looked at me as he was walking out and almost hid a grin.
The door closed behind him. We sat in silence for a little while whilst Sophie finished the last of the joint. She blew half-formed smoke rings out into the middle of the room and then crushed the joint out in a huge plastic ashtray. She looked at me. We kissed. A few minutes later we were in her bed. We feel asleep straight after the sex. The last thing I saw was the clock flashing towards four thirty.