Outside the bar I touch her elbow under neon advertising. She steps back mid-sentence and looks hard at the pavement. I say let’s do this another time, somewhere else in the city.
I head down the high street and message Frankie about tomorrow’s drink, swipe through her selected photos. There’s breaking news, failure to secure a no-fly zone. Rich says to meet him later at the club.
I cut between cars to a chicken shop across the road. Behind the counter the guy asks my order and I stare blankly as he disappears into the metallic kitchen where he starts a conversation. On the salad bar the tabloid reads Where UK aid really goes! and I shout one piece and chips, sit down in the corner and scan the other tables. Customers comment on recent photos and the comments made below them.
It’s eleven o’clock and my phone lights up. Natalie describes her latest hobbies and the government’s issued a statement to clarify yesterday’s announcement. I feel the cardboard wrap in my pocket then collect my food from the counter. My phone vibrates and Kristina’s says she’d like to meet up after her formal grievance hearing.
I lick the bones and order a taxi which pulls up instantly. Inside I say nothing to the driver and he says nothing to me and crossing the Thames I trace the yellows and oranges from office block and hotel windows. Reaching Brixton we turn off the crowds and take a side street where HARDER, FASTER posters peel from the brickwork. I step out, leaving the door swung over the curb, and take the stairs into the basement.
Through sweat and sub-bass arpeggiators I find Rich standing on a table addressing a group in military uniform.
“Are you in costume?” I sip from some guy’s drink who pretends not to notice.
“Hey Finn, you’ve got to see this!” Rich jumps down and holds up hollow buildings and rubble on his phone. “It’s that sweet place we stayed at and now it’s fucking gone.” He bangs rhythmically on his chest. “Like, talk about exclusive!” He grins at two girls across the booth in camouflage skirts, their green lipstick lit by the screen.
“Yeah, awesome.” I say, taking another sip from the guy’s glass, a stale whiskey. “Back in a minute.”
At the bar I see a girl who I think I recently liked and matched with so I ask whether she wants a G&T and she says without ice and we lean against a pillar to discuss her new competitive internship. I say a decade ago I stayed in a Middle Eastern hostel blown to pieces this afternoon. She says that’s amazing and I say yeah, really amazing. Her name’s Carly and she asks whether I want to rack up in the ladies’ cubicle.
The graffiti above the toilet resembles Rorschach inkblots, provoking debate as she cuts two lines on the tank lid. She says there’s too much stuff right now, with all these events open to interpretation, and how’s anyone meant to grasp the situation let alone the solution. Finishing up I nod and flush the bowl. Face to face we take out our phones and I realise we never met online.
Back at the booth Rich removes his tongue from one of the girl’s ears to announce we’re heading to her flat in Kings Cross behind the railway tracks to see the ghost train which runs each night at two. The girl, Lauren, says she has all these surprises and the girl across the table gestures come on, come on and asks my star sign but I say I’m on the cusp so it depends on her anxieties. The DJ drops a hard snare and we leave behind the guy because Rich says he prefers facts to conversation.
Pulling into a terrace street I read there’s a violation of troop withdrawal agreements. We wave off the taxi, sarcastically, and take the stairs to a third floor studio which overlooks a railway line and more flats across, blurred figures like us in crowded kitchens. Lauren chews a gum and says we can either play a board game or not play a board game, holding to her chest a large cardboard box. She plugs a speaker jack into a laptop.
“We have the permanent Security Council numbers,” she says looking at me. “Let’s take a vote.”
“Veto, veto, veto!” says Rich who raises his glass and demands another drink.
The room vibrates and Carly holds onto the leather cushions.
“That’s the ghost train, the same time every night,” says the other girl slumped on the floor with her eyes closed.
“What do you mean a ghost train?” I ask, unable to see out the window from the sofa.
Lauren turns up nineties garage and removes army figurines from the box. “Trains don’t run this late. Nothing’s ever there.” She gestures with a small plastic commando.
Rich refills our glasses and recounts the time we drank arak with cigarette smugglers on the Romanian-Bulgarian border. Saskia sends an introduction, in whose profile her arm’s draped around a Soviet statue. I message back I’ve worked out our five-year plan.
The girl on the floor makes high pitched wheezes and smears make-up onto the collar of her combat top. Rich pumps his fist to the beat and asks Lauren whether the girl’s ok and she says she’s fine, it’s just that part of the trip where everything’s like totally bona fide. He takes out his credit card and the sofa vibrates again and I clink glasses to distract Carly from the girl whose cheeks are flushed from crying. There’s an emergency parliamentary vote on military action as MPs make historic speeches.
Carly strokes my knee and mouths do I want to freshen up and I say yeah but let’s bail in case someone brings out dice and other analogue instruments.
It’s morning and I realise I’ve been awake for hours staring into slits of daylight between the curtains. I read a message from Bea who’s sorry for the silence but she’s been dealing with professional submersion. High rank ambassadors propose multilateral partnerships to clear the airspace. Careful not to wake Carly I pick up yesterday’s clothes from my floor, leave to meet Danny in an award-winning Persian restaurant for brunch.
Rushing through Marylebone then Mayfair then Westminster the screen on the back of the taxi’s passenger seat shows twenty-four hour news; the prime minister cradles puppies promoting animal rights from a shelter; members of the royal family endorse the environment from a golf course. The car pulls up and I think I close the door.
Danny’s back from India and fills himself with baba ganoush and lamb skewers and says it was incredible seeing how much misery and suffering there was and is and will be and I nod with my fork in the tabouleh. He asks how’s my love life and I explain that lives come and go but love’s like a ghost train. Sipping from his beer he says it’s time to settle down and buy a house, perhaps two if his work-life balance allows, although uncertain market speculation makes negative equity the last thing anybody needs, honestly.
“I’m late meeting this girl.” I finish my Manhattan and tap my card on the machine.
“Why don’t you buy yourself a second place, somewhere in the country for weekends? The women will love that.”
I receive a notification on my phone. “I’m not sure that would interest them.”
“Then what does?” Danny looks at me, leaning closer.
“I really don’t know.”
In the taxi I follow a live update on the increasing tension between intergovernmental military alliance members; speculation deems the host negotiator’s influence too weak for a solution. We reach a roadblock and take a diversion, parallel to a march. I glance over to people holding placards on Yemeni schools, turn away and scroll through the same faces in high resolution.
I arrive late and Frankie, my date, sits at the window swiping profiles in a green jumper, resting against her temple a quarter-full wine glass. She says she works for an organisation that facilitates dialogue between state funders and educational providers but her department’s downsizing which makes things, like, interesting and it’s maybe time to try a more lucrative career path. I’m still full from lunch but we order food, Vietnamese fusion.
Frankie has views on social inclusion so I fix on a TV screen behind the bar. Text across the bottom says ceasefire talks have stalled and images of teary adults intersperse with people carried on stretchers and she mentions something about the menu and I down another drink and hear my name but unable to turn from the flashing wreckage I mumble a response as doctors attend to hospital beds full of injured children.
“Where did you say your hometown was again?”
Bodies in white plastic bags cut to the foreign secretary shaking hands on a podium then a body slumped over a woman’s shoulder and a packed square with waving flags and I need more drinks and another line so I finger the wrap through my jacket pocket as the bartender who’s looking up to the bloodshed drops her smile and I feel strange, a brief connection.
Noticing Frankie’s gone I finish her wine though her jacket’s around the stool, phone on the table. Hayley’s attached the menu for a new Libyan place we’ve pencilled in tomorrow. My boss Victor links to a pub where we’ll discuss a likely promotion.
I walk out the bar as the food arrives. Stepping over a sleeping bag I hear someone ask for change and I order a taxi to the casino because it’s a Saturday, in London, where there are so many possibilities.
Laurence Radford is a writer based in London and a former director of the publishing collective Zed Books. He can be contacted at: [email protected]