When I am wrinkled and rickety and the pull of gravity weighs heavy on my bones and the autumn leaves of numbered years sway perilously on the branch, I will recall the summer of ’22 and the encounter with the New Cross blonde. I will remember it, like it was yesterday. Perhaps I will smile. More likely I will shudder.
It started like most good stories, in a pub.
The cycle over Tower Bridge the length of Old Kent Rd with heaving lung and thumping heart will be synonymous always with going to see my mate Tom. It was to his local The Fat Walrus I now beelined on a Friday of early July, skipping the lights on Lewisham Way, hanging a right.
Tom, his wife Louise, Skye peeking out from inside the realms of her pram, and some rotund bloke called George, Tom’s brother apparently, were sat in the beer garden, vacillating about the Prime Minister’s demise. I got there just in time to steer the conversation in a less vapid direction, told them some strange story that took place half way up a hill in Somerset. There are worse places to be than two pints down in a beer garden on a heady afternoon of summer in much loved company.
I walk through the pub and up to the bar. Behind an array of brass taps I see a mass of curls looking down at something on the countertop.
Hi, I say. She raises her head, sweeping the curls away from her face, which now reveals itself. I stop breathing. I stammer my order, my only thought is mate keep your shit together.
I did in fact think very little, just how she was so beautiful I could hardly see straight. I had no notion then, that a fortnight on from the moment time stopped dead for those few seconds at the bar, I’d be sitting here, a shell of my former self, in Y-fronts at 5.24am, writing a blogpost about it all. She poured the drinks. I made some comment about the heat. She smiled. I got out of there.
Back in the garden, I report back on what I’ve seen. Oh God, said Louise. Don’t do this again. I’m not! This girl is out of my league, I swear. So on we went, paddling the seconds of our afternoon downstream, watching our lives dwell for an instant in the present, pause, and pass into memory.
The conversation meanders its way back to Rishi Sunak, my stomach drumrolls and I decide to get some food. I approach, she smiles in recognition, I state my intention, she hands me a menu across the bar. Smile, wider this time. In me, same loss of balance, same heart skip, same pep talk.
My therapist and I skirted once the subject of bipolar disorder.
I don’t think that’s you, he said, it’s fairly extreme. But it is a spectrum, he went on, and you might conceivably be at the very shallow end. Over the years periods of depression had emerged alongside periods of intense high energy. This high energy, for the last month or so, had coloured my days. I wasn’t sleeping much, I was out a lot. The sun was shining, inside and out, lighting up my synapses, bouncing over everything I touched, heard, saw, all things glistened in the gloaming.
The best way to get to true happiness is to spread yourself out like a spider, thought Tolstoy, in a spider’s web of love, and catch in it ‘everything that comes along, be it an old woman, a young girl or a policeman’. Whatever Sprite had flown down to sit with me, the past month had felt precisely that, some spirit was pouring a glow out of me like a firefly, people were responding. My father said he’d rarely seen me so fragile. But I felt fantastic. Ride it to the last stop, said Alfie, just mind the dismount.
She was cracking up now.
Curls spilling over her face, incisors like a vampire. I was taking the piss out of the menu. Can’t you just write burger, where anywhere on here does it say burger. Look, burger sauce, she said giggling. Look, patty. Why not just fucking put burgers then, how hard can it be.
Lydi, she said. Domingo. I paid, went in for the fist-bump, drew back at the last. Dick, she said. Laughing. I walk back into the garden. Some strange sorcery is afoot, I tell them. I swear she was into me. Brows furrow. Even Skye looks sceptical.
Having not been seen in the garden for two hours, she appears, holding my burger, grinning. She walks back into the bar. My mates look at me in stunned disbelief. I know. I dunno what the hell is happening.
Louise has the why do I always have to watch you MeToo innocent girls in pubs look on her face. Five years ago a similar thing happened, a girl in a bar, younger, out of my league. Perhaps unconsciously the memory was fuelling me. Perhaps I just wanted to annoy Louise again. Perhaps it’s because she was unreal. But there was my proof, in the gurn on the faces of my incredulous friends, she had smiled at me.
Get it out the way, says Tom. I go up, she beams almost. Umm.. how about I get your number. She throws her head back. When are you leaving. An hour or so. Come back then. I do. Clear my throat the way you might when someone being talked about appears unexpectedly. She looks up. So… I say. You’re drunk. Nonsense. I’ve had four pints. If you want it, you’re gonna have to come back for it. I smile. What in like five minutes. No, next week.
Fine, I said. I will. Bye Lydi.
A week passes.
I sit with a mate watching the Tour de France from midday Thursday onwards. Circa 6pm I get a voice in my head. It is time. Trouble is, I’m not doing well, I’m drunk, a little sketchy, the only thing that pushes me forward is the thought the cycle south might sober me up, and the fact that, as I keep trying to convince myself, I don’t really care. Better not leave it another week. An adventure beckons.
I get south. Haven’t sobered up at all. I somehow reason sitting in a neighbourhing pub for an hour over a pint will sort me out. It doesn’t.
I circle the pub on my bike doing intense breathing exercises hoping the south-easterly oxygen will work some magic. Fuck it. I walk in. She’s at the bar. Bandana and a transformers Tee. Hey, I say. She smiles. Drink? Yea. I try and banter but nothing lands. I sense my shoulders hunching, my face losing colour, I am hollow. I take my pint to the garden.
Down the phone, my new mate Will gives an extremely simple one word instruction. Abort. Just get out of there. I concur, but I don’t really care, I tell him, I really don’t. At that exact moment she walks past, smiles at me. Unmistakably. Fuck it, I’m going in. From the phone I hear a noo-… I cut him off.
If there is one element of this story that makes me shudder, it’s the sunflower. I fish it out of my backpack. She takes it, not entirely unhappily. Where did you get this. My flat, I say. Hackney. I came all the way. Oh yea? She doesn’t seem that impressed. Maybe her geography isn’t great.
So what you reckon? You said if I came back I could have it. She looks a little sad. Not sad, maybe the way you might look at a puppy who keeps falling over. You’re not gonna like my answer. Go on then.
My week-ago-self would’ve cracked up, parried, protested, would’ve brought it round, would’ve sold her my prowess for recalling rap lyrics, sold her a dawn cycle down the canal, sold her a future, the two of us walking entwined down Lewisham Way listening to Springsteen. But at that point I was holding onto the floor. I’d lost before I walked in.
Why did I walk in.
I stood by the bar for a moment or so. She looked at me, began to pour a pint for someone, my shame barraged me, my hope whimpered, I gave her an exit strategy. Do you want me to leave? She cocked her head to one side, smiling sadly.
Yes please mate.
Walking out of that pub, the chill of some winter swept through me, above a dark presence hovered. For about a minute and 12 seconds I felt like a fucking failure. I felt old. Like me and the carpet slipper guy recalling all this in 2069 were one and the same. I felt like I’d never find anybody. I saw her in some pub with her mates, laughing at the story of the creep, saw a sunflower lying discarded on an unforgiving pavement.
Maybe all in this world is energy. You could be a 4ft tall Andre the Giant and believe your hype and get the girl. Perhaps the stories we tell ourselves are all we have. We begin and end with our own self-perception. Being honest, I knew it was never going to go anywhere. It was all ego. I couldn’t believe this girl had shown interest and my ego had goaded me. You’re a fool not to go back. But I was a mess. I had none of the flex I’d shown on the first meeting, my Sprite had gone awol.
She sensed it I’m sure.
And yet, once those 72 seconds had elapsed, I began to feel something else. The chill warmed up, the shadow departed, in its place a new emotion began to materialise. Something like pride. I’d done my best. I’d conquered my fear. I’d crashed and burnt, hard. But I’d gone on an adventure. Had something to show for it. Not much, but something. I cycled back through the New Cross night, and felt the Sprite soar down to be at my side.
It’s not the world’s greatest story, says Alfie.
Why? I say, offended. What better story is there. Look mate we’ve heard about you walking into a pub to see about a girl more than a few times. We get it. You’re not some comic book geek plucking up the courage to shoot your shot, you’ve done this before. You’re cooler than that. It doesn’t fly.
What are you talking about. Try living in my fucking head bro. The mingo you see is not the guy hanging out in my dome, I can tell you that. I’m scared shitless. Less so than you think, he says. We go back and forth over text chatting gas, the following morning the waters calm and I get a message.
The New Cross blonde.
Off she walks into the realms of an alternate destiny, as do I. She was unreal. Probably gets that kinda stuff from guys all the time, probably gets annoying. Probably no one as creepy as balding sunflower guy. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe she went to bed that night thinking that was pretty cool. Maybe she wasn’t ready.
It’s not about her.
It’s about me having the guts to do things that scare the crap out of me, and failing. And realising that success or failure doesn’t matter. The next day, Tom sent me the Roosevelt speech. Not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena, who if he fails he fails while daring greatly, that one.
You should go back for round 3, he said. Ha, reckon. I think this all has to do with the Sunscreen line. Do something every day that scares you. That’s the story. I don’t think I do enough of that. Struggling every day to preserve my emotions, to keep me from feeling something I’m afraid I won’t have the guts to feel.
I like what Gloria says to a befuddled Billy on a bus cruising through Venice in White Men Can’t Jump. Sometimes when you win you actually lose, and sometimes when you lose you actually win. Sometimes when you win or lose you actually tie.
I crashed and burnt. But felt alive. I felt fear, and met it with courage, felt desolation, and met it with pride. And came back with a story I suppose.
Might print it out, cycle back one day, leave it on the bar.