Murray’s Mess

Murray’s Mess: An Afternoon At Wimbledon
6706 words . July 2012 . This is all true

wimbledon

+

On Sunday at about 12:30 I bought some food at Sainsbury’s and boarded the 8 bus going towards Shoreditch High Street, the pink and brown shopping bag with the cupcakes stored securely at my feet. I sat alone in the upper level of the red bus. James had said to meet at Box Park, a popup mall near the Overground station.

If he is anything James is reliable, with this effect on me that I feel compelled to give him compliments all the time. But, with my typical lack of panache and tact, they come out wrong. He gives me a bit of cheek.

When my phone rang in my bag, the tinny tone I’ve yet to change, I fished it out. Two new messages. Perhaps I should also mention that my life had become infinitely easier with the acquirement of said phone; no more just missing out on people at meet-ups.

– Have you gone out yet?

– Apparently there is a place in Bethnal Green good for tennis.

Shit, I thought.

– I’ve just boarded the bus, I texted back. Can we meet at Box Park anyway?

– If that’s easier, he texted. I tossed my phone back in my bag.

Box Park is quite fashionable-looking, features a second level with open communal seating and a screen broadcasting the game next to a bubble tea shop. I stood on the balcony overhanging the railing and waited for him, but soon the sun beating down on my bare shoulders made me escape for underneath the stairs.

He texted: – Be there soon.

Five minutes later: – I can’t find you!

I texted, Under the stairs.

The next time I looked up from my phone there he was, just he was suddenly there and familiar and comfortable and warm. I didn’t see from which direction he approached. He wore a reddish t-shirt and knee-length cut-off denim shorts with grey well worn Converses, the golden tortoiseshell of his glasses frames glinting in the direct sunlight. These British men wear their shorts differently. Not those baggy surfer ones.

“You moved,” he said, smiling that benign smile that is very much him.

“Hi,” I said. “Did you not get my text? I said the sun had chased me below.”

“Oh, it seems I’ve just received that now.” He held up his iPhone, which I remember so well from the very first time we met, when we sat in the rocking hold of the boat as he searched for the best night bus for me to take home to Brent Cross from Hackney.

He pointed at the yogurt held in my hand and asked, “What’s that you’re eating?“

“Oh, just yogurt. What does it look like?”

“Is it nice?” he asked.

I hesitated mid-bite. The problem is that I find him hard to read – sometimes he does this eyebrow raise and quizzical inflection that makes me think he doesn’t approve of whatever I’m doing – when it turns out that’s just his voice.

“I just thought,” he continued, “that it looked like it would be cold, which would be nice in this weather.”

He was drinking a Coke. “Is your pop nice?” I asked.

“Warm,” he said. “So no, I was thinking of throwing it away.”

“Mine’s nice.”

“Good, I’m glad,” he said and smiled.

He said, “So, my friends, Lucy and Cecile, who also live in Bethnal Green, suggested we try a place called the Oval to watch the tennis. But I’ve never been there myself, so we’re going to have to be a little brave and get on a bus! I’m sorry to have to make you go back the way you came.”

“I’m game,” I said. “Don’t be sorry. I’ll walk anywhere.” What I really meant was: I’d walk anywhere for new experiences and good friends and especially for Wimbledon on a hot summer day in East London.

+

I followed him to a bus stop and we got on one going to Cambridge Heath Road. We sat on the top level on the right side.

As I slipped into the seat beside his I’d been telling him what really goes through my head. He had asked me what I’ve been up to for the last few days and it came out how I’d gone out with a different girl every single day and ended up last night puking my guts out after four glasses of wine. I didn’t make it to the club we were supposed to go to.

James said he knew the feeling, and that when he was in uni, he would actually pre-emptively go to the toilet and vomit just so he could get it over with and continue to party the rest of the evening.

“There are different people for different kinds of experiences,” I said, pulling my blue messenger bag into my lap and trying to sit somewhat at attention. “You were right, before – what you said about the whole getting sloshed thing not being as easy when you’re a bit older – I mean, I don’t think I enjoyed it that much. It wasn’t worth it after all.”

I said, “This is going to sound really awful to say, but… Also, sometimes I see having conversations and meetups as a kind of game. Like, how can I keep it going and make people happy? Sometimes I just start repeating what people say, and it’s remarkable how much that works in making people like you.”

James tipped his head to the side, in a motion like he was trying to think and replied, “That’s actually quite clever, I think. And it’s nice to want to make people happy.”

I nodded. “Most people just want someone to listen to them. We’re not very good listeners for the most part. And I’m going to be a doctor, and I feel like I should know how to do this. And I’m useless at actually knowledge stuff so I’ve got to make up the difference in some measure.”

James smiled again. “You should probably stop thinking so much,” he said.

Didn’t I know it?

“Absolutely.” I said.

“But, on the plus side, being self-conscious is often nicer than some people who you could say could do with being a little more self-aware,” he continued.

“I want people to enjoy me,” I said. “I’m trying very hard to make sure that they have a good time when they’re with me.” I just don’t want them to feel as though they’ve wasted their time. I’d hate to be not worth it.

“Yes, I think I understand,” he said. “If you don’t see people for a few weeks at a time and you just want to have a nice afternoon together you kind of plan it in a certain way, and let some things go to ensure a good time.”

“Did you do that with me?” I asked, and winced. “Oh, I know that face. You did, didn’t you? That’s alright, I’m just pointing it out.” I reddened. I was always afraid I was bothering him.

“No, not really? I don’t think so?”

“Really? Well, anyway, I have a name for what you said. It’s called social lubrication.”

“Alright,” he said, laughing. “Then social lubrication it is. But stop thinking about it. Please.”

+

I had asked him to let me press the button at Cambridge Heath Road. “Just tell me where the stop is and I’ll get it. I like these action items. I like to have a go.”

Sometimes I think he doesn’t know quite what to say to me besides grin and shrug.

We got off at the same bus stop, it turned out, as I’d been at the day before to go to Leyton. James consulted his iPhone for the directions to the Oval Space. We walked for a while and turned into a somewhat dilapidated looking side street. I was just following him, so I wasn’t paying attention. The sun was sweltering overhead. From a building on the left loud gospel singing drifted out.

“Let’s head towards the singing,” he said.

“I don’t think that sounds like tennis,” I said, a bit more warily.

“No, you’re quite right about that,” he replied, all his teeth showing in the smile. It turned out that The Oval is the name of the street we were on, which is at the base of an enormous abandoned gasworks in Hackney, mere meters from Regent’s Canal and just off Hackney Road. It was the gasworks, its tall imposing structure of orange metal, that caught my eye, looking like the skeleton of a baseball stadium.

We stood around for what seemed like ages until James figured out that we were actually right in front of the entrance the entire time. A tiny door in a wall opened into a wider space. Adverts and flyers lined the walls. We saw toilets, and a sign that said, probably with unexpressed irony, “Free Lollies.” Even James giggled with me at that one.

A staircase led to another level where the tennis was, and we entered the main watching area.

“It’s much smaller than I thought,” I whispered, looking at the flat-screen LCD television that was set up. There were girls sitting on blankets and beanbags right in front, and further back rested more benches and table-chairs sets.

“There’s a lot of glare on the screen,” James agreed. He led me to the back and we set out bags down. “But it’s quite a nice setup, and there’s shade, why don’t we give it a try.”

I admired the fairy lights garlanded over our heads with little lantern cages and strings of white flowers and leaves. Boxes of plants ran down the sides of the space, and in the back, drinks and food were being served from a bar. The menu was scrawled in chalk. Hot dogs, burgers, short ribs, watermelon with feta cheese on top, zucchini strips deep-fried in batter. Pimm’s pitchers waiting at the ready. It smelled like suntan oil and never-ending, perfect British summer. I felt perfectly content.

James asked me, “What would you like to drink?”

I had already promised myself no alcohol, not after the shenanigans the day before. “Um, what are you getting?”

“Lemonade, please,” he was telling the bargirl. “You’ll have one too?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Make that two,” he said, laughing, I felt, at my indecision a bit.

I felt a bit silly about watching the bargirl crack open a can of lemon pop and pour it into two glasses of ice, slide in a lemon wedge, with a straw.

He handed mine to me first, always so polite. We’d already had this discussion before, when he first went up to the bar, and I told him it was okay, I could get my own drink. He looked uncomfortable, face scrunching up a bit, and said that we’d probably be here long enough that we could both each buy a round of drinks. I had yet to read the SIRC Pub Etiquette manual, so I didn’t know about the buying in rounds thing.

“Fine,” I huffed.

“But come here,” he said, beckoning, “and choose your drink.”

I was noticing something else, that he talks very, very slowly, and pointed out, “You’re exactly like Harry Styles.“

He gave me the side-eye. “No? What? How?”

“You talk so slowly, just like him. It’s always, um…I went to the mall…and like…I bought…a shirt. I mean, you’re obviously a lot smarter–” I was putting my foot in my mouth again, wasn’t I, but I didn’t want him to think I was insulting his intelligence.

James smiled. “I don’t know about his intellect. I couldn’t say.”

“They’re all really stupid. But I still love them. It makes them cuter, I guess.”

“For someone who has supposedly quit them,” he said, grinning. “You still talk about them a lot.”

I protested. Humph. “It’s hard! It’s like any other addiction; it’s hard just to go off of it – there’s like, a transition period.”

“I never thought you had to quit them,” James said. “I think you should still do it if it makes you happy.”

“But it doesn’t make me happy,” I said, grumpily. “And that’s why. It’s not the same anymore.”

I kind of wished it was the same, but I had come here on my own, and in six weeks, I had already changed so quickly.

+

Wimbledon in England is a unique sport-watching experience. It’s the only tennis tournament most Brits care about, a drama magnified every year by the continued crushing agony of not having a British gentleman’s singles champion for seventy-seven years. On that day we were all gathered to watch the next great British hope, Andy Murray, vie for his first Wimbledon title against Novak Djokovic, world number one. Not since Tim Henman and the crowds on Henman Hill had I felt like I was witnessing British patriotism on so massive a scale.

James likes Andy a fair bit, but it was hard to tell because of the way he doesn’t get over-excited about anything. I liked being able to talk to tennis about him because back home it’s a hockey nation – and it hardly ever gets hot enough to play tennis on a hard court.

He sipped at the edge of his second coke. I wouldn’t let him pay for it, having stood in the queue and handed his coins back to him. “I was a pretty big tennis fan, but that was a long time ago,” he mused.

“Me too,” I said, perking up. “Maybe our fannish eras actually coincided.”

“I suppose most of the players I knew have retired. I don’t know these new ones. And to be honest I’m not that full-on as to do the research anymore.”

“Same. But come on, then. Do you remember. Hmm.” I thought for a moment, back in time. “How about Patrick Rafter?”

James nodded. “Yes. The Aussie.”

I giggled and said, “All I knew about him was he had two US Opens and a white spot on his head. It defined him! My friend and I called him Spothead. And there was Lleyton Hewitt.”

“Ah, yes. He was quite good for a while. He’s still playing now, I believe.”

“Oh god, what about Andy Roddick. Had a massive crush on him. But really couldn’t stand to watch him play with that ugly two-handed backhand, and that serve!”

Giggling to myself, I made a mock service motion and did a crazy whack like Roddick, who, as a player, was kind of awkward to watch, having never mastered the finesse of Federer, the shot selection of Djokovic and Murray, only a kind of unbridled, reckless power. I suppose I always worried for Roddick because he reminded me a lot of myself. He’ll only ever have won that one US Open on home soil in Flushing. I’m always afraid I’ll fade away. Not live up to my potential.

It had become apparent that the spot we’d chosen to sit wasn’t much good for the watching. In the glare we could hardly see the ball. James had had a bit of a stand a few feet closer earlier but shook his head and came back, saying it was rubbish no matter where you stood.

“I can’t see who’s serving,” James said, shaking his head, but good-naturedly. “What’s the score in the set?”

“Five-all? Or it could be three-two, Djokovic serving. Forty-fifteen. Might have to check on your phone.”

I grinned through the sunshine and took a deep gulp of my icy lemonade.

“At least we can hear the commentary,” he said, pointing to the good speakers wired onto the walls.

He started scrolling through his phone to bring up the current scoreboard, and as I was watching him, I was taken completely by surprise by the deep voice that boomed in, reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator.

I asked, “God, who’s that?”

“Who’s what?”

“That voice!”

James laughed. “Oh, him. That’s Boris Becker! Do you know him?”

“Somewhat. He was a great champion, right. From Germany?”

“Yes, and I quite like his commentary! He’s quite funny,” James said. “Unlike Henman, who’s a bit rubbish to be quite honest.”

I thought back to many long days on dial-up internet. I would spend afternoons refreshing Henman’s matches at SW19, the light bobble on his service motion, his pale, almost translucent skin and dark closely-cropped hair, always quite tip-top in his Wimbledon Whites.

I said, “I always did get the impression that Henman was slightly devoid of personality. Poor guy.“ He was just trying his best. Anyone would crumble under seven decades worth of pressure.

Underneath the table we were sitting at I had set down my bag of cupcakes to keep out of the sun. I didn’t know then that we would never get to eat them together. Who knows what happened to them in the end.

I crossed my legs at the knee and studied James’ profile, the small orange spots at the corners of his eyes, the darkish growth on his jaw that merged with his somewhat unruly sideburns, where his dark brown hair has begun to thin slightly, but just slightly. While he had told me it made him a bit self-conscious, I don’t think he has anything to worry about. I’m getting older too. I have made peace (somewhat) with the fact that this is as good-looking as I am ever going to get.

He turned and looked at me. I had been pleasantly surprised to find he wasn’t one of those people who’d invite me to watch sport only to actually ignore me the entire time. He would ask me questions. We could have comfortable silences. And at an exciting game or point, if we could actually gauge it based on the crowd response, we’d squint at the screen with bated breath.

“I get very quiet when I’m absorbed in sport,” he said, perhaps trying to guess at what I was thinking gazing at him so intently. “And this isn’t really me at my most absorbed. Sometimes people try to talk to me when I’m watching football, and that’s a laugh.”

“You support Arsenal?” I remembered this factoid from earlier. London’s bursting with teams. Chelsea, West Ham, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur. He nodded. “The family I stay with also like Arsenal,” I said.

“They’ve got good taste.”

“I’ll make sure to report back then. I wonder how people choose a side to support.”

“I imagine it’s usually who your town or family support, but these days, it’s also kind of who is good when you’re a kid.”

“That makes sense.” I swivelling slightly to see Murray whack a backhand down the line. They were holding their service games quite handily, each, even if the games ran very long.

I asked, “So what do you think about Andy today?“

I had done some pre-match reading-up the day before because I must go into everything prepared especially having not closely followed tennis for many years.

So far the match had been a slug-fest from the baseline replete with long rallies, Djokovic having hit seven aces and our Andy racking up winners. On court, Becker said the temperature was at forty degrees, so that it might turn out to be a contest of physical fitness and endurance. I had heard that Djokovic’s fitness was unparalleled. He’s also extremely tough mentally. He slugged out an insane five-setter with Del Potro in the semi.

“I like him, but nothing’s guaranteed. Djokovic is stunningly good of late,” said James.

I had read that of people feel like it’s Andy’s time, that he deserves it after last year’s cry-fest, defeated by Federer after giving up a lead. I know how that feels. To be crushed by expectation and then claw back to the cusp again, with the prize so tantalizingly close and out of reach.

“The garbage press are hard on him,” James told me. “They think he’s miserable and dour. They think he’s arrogant and has no personality.”

“I think that is his personality,” I said. “It’s no use trying to to be the champion that others want you to be.” That said, I should take my own advice. I have to admit, though, that one of my favourite Youtube searches is “Andy Murray crying” – it’s just the gift that keeps on giving.

“Have you,” I asked, shifting slightly in the lawn chair to move out of the sun, “ever done any competitions like this?”

“In sport?” James asked.

“In anything,” I said. “Sport or arts…”

“Not since school,” he said.

“What I’m getting at,” I said, “is that I think I know how he feels. I used to do these city piano competitions and I’d get so nervous my hands would shake and that’s sort of useless when you’re supposed to be fingering the proper notes.”

James agreed with me. He said, “I used to play saxophone and clarinet in school and had some exams. I’d get so nervous I couldn’t suck and blow properly.”

Here was my subtext, if you want to know: my mother would get very angry at me; I fucked up and placed third twice before I finally made her happy and got a first-place in Piano Solo Fifteen Years and Under, a waltz at the RCM 7 level. I think I quit piano immediately after that.

“Shit,” I giggled. “That would be difficult.”

“Yes, quite.”

“So I hope Andy doesn’t choke. It would be so easy to choke,” I said.

We’d watched Murray win the first set now, not handily, but not too awfully either.

“Yes, it would,” James said. “And Djokovic is very good at coming back from when he’s down, so I’m not going to get too excited about a one-set lead.”

I grinned and said, “I’m starting to feel a bit contrary.”

“Ohhhhhh. Pulling for Djokovic now? Better not be too loud about it. You’ll not find many fans here!”

“I just think it would be more exciting.”

“I s’pose.”

“But you just want Andy to rout him.”

“Oh, yes. I’d want six-love, six-love, six-love.” James nodded emphatically.

“Classy,” I said. “Real classy.”

It was a bit comical. I made a face at him, and then took a long sip of my coke, the ice melted down to flat translucent shards.

+

Earlier James had queued at the bar a bit to order a burger, and it was taking forever to fire up the grill and get the orders out. I thought he should go up and yell at them a bit, but he seemed reticent. The customer service culture here is variable at best – certainly, the ethos is not “the customer is always right.”

He dug in his pocket and came up with his Oyster card holder (BFI membership, of course he would have that!) and a bunch of crumpled receipts.

I asked, “Are you looking for the receipt to go talk to them about it?”

“I don’t think they gave me one, actually,” he said.

“Oh, come on, just go!” I urged, rolling my eyes.

The man behind the grill came round almost at that exact moment, cutting that thought off, and said, “Did you get your food?” He didn’t sound very concerned about it.

“I ordered a burger a while back,” James said.

The man had a very bald head, the sun glinting sharply off of it as if off freshly-polished chrome hubcaps. He shook his head. “Ah, so that was your burger. I’ve got it behind there. Just a moment. Why don’t you get your sauces over there.”

James came back with a bottle of ketchup and took the top bun off his newly-arrived burger.

“You’re a ketchup person, then,” I observed.

He gently nudged the onion curls off the burger and onto the plate. “Mmm-hmm, but no onions, please,” he said, wrinkling his nose, pausing to watch a particularly exciting break point on the screen.

Murray and Djokovic were getting up to many long deuces. I was starting to think we would need a lot more drinks and food.

The Oval bar was also filling up quickly, people coming up the stairs and bringing chairs in closer to the screen, English girls wearing strapless playsuits, and floral tea dresses, wide-brim, floppy hats, their boyfriends in flannel, rolled up tee-shirt sleeves, Ray-Bans. A steady line edged out from the bar, plates of watermelon-feta, short ribs, hot dogs, and burgers served out regularly, if awfully slowly, by a beautiful girl with the longest limbs I’ve ever seen.

I’d gotten told off earlier for having my Sainsbury’s food on the roof. It was an honest mistake. I didn’t know the space was a formal restaurant! I’d bought my go-to food, the Sainsbury’s chargrilled British chicken strips, which James had asked to sample.

“Hmm, it’s better than I thought. I thought they would be awful, but actually quite moist,” he said.

“Right? And it’s healthy.”

He lifted up the package and squinted at the nutrition information on the back. “There’s load of stuff besides chicken in there.”

I checked as well, admitting, “So there is, but you can also see it’s low in salt, fat and saturated fat. You can’t have everything. Protein’s the hardest thing for me to get, on the whole.“

“Do you to pay attention to that?” he asked.

I took a deep breath.

I said, “I used to have an eating disorder,” and stared very pointedly at my piece of chicken, mid-bite.

He looked at me, quiet for a moment, but to his credit, he didn’t look too aghast.

He asked, “And that’s done with now.”

“Yes, it was only for a month–”

I felt embarrassed. Sometimes I feel like there can’t possibly be this many things wrong with me, someone who Linda says is still a very healthy young woman, that it’s all in my head.

I continued, “However, I believe that kind of thinking pattern stays with you forever. Like, I still feel compelled to check labels and stay within 300-400 calories per mini-meal, but I’m at the point where I’ll eat pretty much anything as long as it’s not too outrageous. No more counting calories and sub-1000 days.. I’m satisfied on the whole if I can get my food groups.” I was aware of how obsessive just that kind of talk sounded. Well, what can you do. I’m used to it. Nothing shocks me anymore.

He looked relieved. “All right.”

But I just think people don’t know what to say to this kind of thing.

Staring at the dark floral pattern of my dress under the table, I wondered when we were ever going to eat the cupcakes, if they’d already melted into a mini-river of Red Velvet and cream.

+

James was telling me that over the past weekend two American burger joints had opened in London and there’d been queues forever.

“Did you go?” I have to say that I adore the way the word “queue” is used here, just that single word, for the verb and the noun. It does so much more for the language than “line up” and “wait”, I think.

He said, “Certainly not – I will not queue two hours for burgers.”

I asked, “Would you queue for Taco Bell?” remembering he had enjoyed the Taco Bell in New York City.

“That is… Taco Bell is at the very edge of what is passable for Mexican food,” he replied, not really answering the question.

“It’s funny you should say that. Because I just don’t understand Mexican food,” I said.

“Oh?” he asked.

“My friend and I,” I began. “were at the Hard Rock Calling festival in Stratford, and she ordered nachos, and I ordered tacos, and as we were eating them we came to the conclusion that what we had on our plates was exactly the same,” I said, shaking my head, “except my taco shells were bigger than her nachos.”

“It was just a homogenous slop, then,” he said.

“Yeah, exactly,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s not real Mexican food at all,” he said.

Murray and Djokovic were on screen trading breaks, sweating, and grunting. Djokovic didn’t seem so composed anymore, had been up to yell at the empire and looked like he was going to have a tantrum.

After a moment, I said, very slowly. “I just don’t really like beans that much.”

And maybe it was the emphasis on beans because then James started laughing and laughing and he just couldn’t stop so I smiled too, sheepishly, and shrugged.

+

James was born in 1980, which is weird to think about. He’s actually eight years older than I am.

I told him on Facebook Chat, “I like you because you seem to know a lot.”

He said, “I’ve been through a lot!”

But he doesn’t feel thirty-two. He feels much younger than Justin and Clare, the couple I stayed with at Elephant & Castle.

He told me, “I think it has something to do with if you’re still a student and if you’ve settled down.”

“Yes,” I said. “Now that I think about it, those two were very co-dependent and it felt like they were married. They were collecting things, building a household.”

I remembered that everywhere you looked there was wine, even in the spoon and knife drawers. They were stocking up.

I looked at him. “You’re really a child of the 90s. I knew I was starting to get old because I started getting nostalgic for the 90s. Even the bad music of the 90s was good.”

“Are you saying I’m old?”

“No, I’m saying you feel young. I thought you were my age when I met you.” I sighed. “i’m trying to give you a compliment, but I’m shit at it.”

“It’s fine,” he laughed. “You did well.”

“Thank you, “ I said, flushing deeply.

It was hard. It wasn’t easy, just talking to people. You get so motherfucking self-conscious about it all.

+

His friends who live in Bethnal Green, Lucy and Cecile, had spent that morning at a car boot sale, and James said when they returned they would join us. They did about halfway through the third set, Murray already up a break, putting poor Djokovic on the ropes. We were all starting to get excited on the roof. Yet I’d be lying if I wasn’t secretly hoped for a Djokovic comeback so the match would drag on and on and maybe I could stay in London forever.

James received the call from Lucy on his iPhone. “They’re downstairs, but they can’t get in. I’m going to go have a look,” he said.

He got up to go to the front door, and when he returned, pointed to the bar. “I need to go speak to them. There’s a sign that says they’re full-up, and we need to go ask the barpeople if it’s alright to let more in.”

“That’s ridiculous; there’s plenty of room up here.” It was just the crowded bit in front of the television that was unpleasant.

The first person I met in the end was Cecile, who wore vintage Ray-Bans and had a heavy, loping stride. Behind her walked Lucy in a pink shirt and red, plastic frames that reminded me of James’. Cecile was Lucy’s girlfriend – I’d clarified that earlier with him to ensure I didn’t have a misunderstanding. You never know these days with people who call “shopping girlfriends” girlfriends as well.

A long thin bench pressed up against the wall of plants beside where James and I sat, and it was there that the girls reclined.

Lucy is a librarian. She works with medical students. Cecile is French if that’s a sufficient descriptor. She didn’t speak much. “But she has opinions on where to go,” James told me later when we needed exactly such an opinion. I always wonder about how he made his friends, for mine are a patchwork of undergraduate and medical, mostly undergraduate. My trusting period, I call it. Never to be repeated.

He and Patrick had met at Warwick when he did his MA and Patrick was in his third year of the baccalaureate.

“Did you meet Lydia and Patrick at the same time?” I asked.

I hadn’t received any word from Patrick since our night in Haggerston and hadn’t wanted to bother him further. Lydia and I exchanged a few messages on Facebook. She’s already in Japan with Josh now after returning from Poland.

“Patrick and I actually dated for a while–”

“Ah,” I said, and gave James a significant look, having wondered about this, not knowing how to ask.

James corrected, “It was a long time ago, and just for a little bit.” He coughed to clear his throat slightly and continued, “And it was through Patrick that I met many other people.”

“Is Patrick from London?”

James shook his head, looking amused. “No, he’s from Northampton.”

“And I’m guessing that’s immediately north of Southhampton,” I quipped.

“In the Midlands, actually,” he said.

“Ah, the Midlands.” I was thinking of the shipyard from which Titanic set sail.

It’s funny because he had told me I should try to see a little more of the country, but I just hadn’t bothered. I know London is just a small slice, but to be honest, I was here to see London. It was what I had pined for each day in Paris.

“But I’m not the best at the suggesting places thing,” he had said. “I’m very London.”

He said, “Anyway, Patrick’s been in Northampton for a bit, so if you tried to contact him he would have been away.”

I thought, suddenly, of James’ trip to New York City.

I asked, “He went with you to NYC, right? When was that again? And how did that come about?”

I was curious; I’d forgotten to ask all these things the last time we met and was pressed to do it all now.

James smiled. “We had a friend, in Brooklyn, who was going away for a while. He needed someone to take care of his cats and said, why don’t you two come on over and stay for free.”

“Even the plane tickets?”

“Oh, no, we got those ourselves. But otherwise, two weeks of running free in New York City. We thought that was just splendid. Patrick and I had to pretend to be a couple.”

“Ha, amazing.”

“I enjoyed myself,” James said, with a shrug.

+

I found myself in the same position as James earlier with his burger; it had been at least forty-five minutes since I’d ordered the short ribs and they’d yet to make any sort of appearance. A set had come and gone and sent Djokovic into a mighty tailspin. And meanwhile, heavy-laden watermelon-feta plates were going out like mad.

I don’t wear the English reticence quite as well as James does.

I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’m going over,” I said, pushing away from the table suddenly and forcefully.

“Really?” His eyebrow went up.

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

Back at the bar counter, chrome hubcab guy, still working the grill, wasn’t having any of this conversation stuff, and pointed to the Super Long Legs girl, who, in a kindlier tone, said she’d look into it. Another fifteen minutes later she and her legs returned, looking contrite.

“Shit, your order got lost in the mix. We’ll do it up now, and in the meantime, here’s a complimentary bowl of zucchini chips for you.”

“Oh, nice.” I pushed the chips into the center of the table for James, Lucy, and Cecile to share in. They were very nice chips, actually. If I were to describe them, I would say they were like slivers of zucchini coated in fried batter. Skinny zucchini tempura. “Thank you,” I said.

“That was nice of them,” James said, reaching over.

“See?” I said. “And that’s how it’s done.”

He mumbled later, through a mouthful, “If they were trying to get me to buy more drinks with how salty this is, it’s working!”

In between the chips he was also discussing with Lucy and Cecile about a wedding they were going to in five days, in Dusseldorf, Germany.

I’ve still never been to a wedding, and in contrast, it honestly seemed like he was off to one every week. It had certainly been the case the previous weekend, when I’d attempted to call him out, and which also happened to be the weekend of my twenty-fifth birthday.

To his credit he texted me at my new London number at about 3 a.m.

– Happy birthday!

I texted back, Thanks 🙂 , flipped my dinky little Samsung shut, placed it on my lampstand, and turned in for the night.

At around noon, the phone tooted again.

– Happy birthday!

I giggled to myself. He was so dumb.

– You already said that! 🙂

– Sorry, I had a wedding yesterday. I’m still pretty hungover and I’ve been in bed all day recovering!

– LOL, to be honest I’m surprised you’re even awake. Are you going out at all today?

– I’m supposed to be attending a going-away drinks thing in a bit but I don’t think I’m in a fit enough state!

I told him he should go. His friends would miss him.

Poor James. I let him alone after that, and instead of any spectacular plans, I had dinner with Linda, Sophie, Mark, Abby, and the kitties. Sophie, too, was really too hungover to be of any use that night. Linda wanted her to have some birthday cake, but the sweet partied-out darling had not slept since Friday night, and actually collapsed in her room post-dinner, pre-cake.

So, for my birthday walk, I took the Tube, alone, to Embankment, where I walked along the Golden Jubilee bridge, along South Bank, across Westminster Bridge, and then to Parliament Square. Setting up camp in the southeast corner just at the foot of the great statue of Sir Winston Churchill, I lay back in the cool grass and listened to Big Ben chime. Even in the near-dark the square bustled with activity. Hi-lighter yellow-clad policemen stood at the southern intersection keeping the order.

Two young Korean girls took turns snapping photos of each other in front of the clock, jabbering excitedly.

Another young lady with a heavy accent came over and asked me, “Could you tell me how to get to Trafalgar Square?”

I pointed in the direction of Whitehall and said, “Just up that street.”

Justin had told me that I had the kind of face that would make people want to ask me for directions, and he was right – it happened all the time.

Back on the rooftop, I wondered if I would ever have that particular kind of social life, a social life that included weddings and milestones.

I said to James, “You go to a lot of weddings. I mean, not just you, but– it’s the age, isn’t it? The age of engagements and weddings and babies?”

“Sure,” he said, eyes glued to the television. “But they’re petering out slowly but surely.”

+

I think when we watch the Murray-Djokovic match back, in the future, it will seem inevitable, that it really was Andy’s day that Sunday. Yet in the moment, we were all so tense on that rooftop it’s a wonder we didn’t sprout six-packs mid-way.

You know how it goes: the last game, Murray to serve for the match. Forty-love. Three match points on his racket. Every single person in that stadium, Royals, Andy’s crazy mum, on their feet. The man to my right, sitting on a milk crate, was going ballistic, beefy red hands clutching at the back of his head.

Djokovic rallied; he fought back to deuce.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” We were shitting bricks. I shoved ribs, distractedly, into my mouth.

Second deuce.

Third.

Fourth.

It really is called a fucking deuce for a reason.

The ballistic guy was having a meltdown. “Come on, Andy! Come on, you–”

But on the telly, Boris Becker interrupted, “Any point will do.”

And it was like a balloon popped during that four-word monotone – wave after wave of laughter rolled across the rooftop. Jesus Christ on a cracker, where did they find this guy!

James grinned at me, and my cheeks hurt from grinning back at him so hard.

I held my breath.

Djokovic’s backhand whacked into the net.

We lost our shit.

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