This Piece is titled Friends, I Thought This Was Living.
it is around 2,300 words in length
Friends, I thought this was living.
“Of course this is living,” Richard says with a roll of his eyes as he grabs his cappuccino from the rickety table. “If it’s not, then what the hell are we doing on a daily basis?”
What the hell are we doing?
My mouth hanging open, I stare at my mother as she looms stubbornly in the doorway. Her shoulders squared as if she’s trying to fill the gap in the door. Her arms crossed firmly over her chest, her eyes narrowed at me.
“Well, young man? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I-I, I can explain-n mum,” I say as I rise to my feet. No one flinches as the games controller slips from my hand and crashes against the floor. My friends turn their faces away, their ears pinned back to swallow every uttered word so they can use it against me at school tomorrow, especially in front of Jessica in Literature class.
“For goodness sake Arthur, I agreed to let your friends come over because you said you’re going to revise for your chemistry exam! You can’t keep doing this son. When are you going to take responsibility for your actions?”
I stare at the floor as my cheeks burn. My mother’s hand whips out and snatches the half smoked cigarette hanging loosely from my lips.
“We’ll talk later,” she mutters and slams my bedroom door, the windows rattle.
My friends snigger as I sink to the floor.
“Don’t you have any sense of responsibility?”
Five pairs of eyes focus in my direction. Their gazes’ burn into me, studying my anatomy like a hundred year old tiger butterfly in a glass jar that sits in a dark corner in the British Museum. They’re trying to see how my brain ticks, if I function like a normal human being. Trying to work out if I’ve finally lost my marbles, lost the plot.
Richard probably has some kind of bet going, the sneaky bastard.
I frown. Wasn’t it clear? Didn’t they understand what I said? Do I really have to explain it to them? We all have degrees for God’s sake-well, no actually, Nate doesn’t, there’s always one isn’t there? One black sheep standing out from the herd. But surely none of them could’ve forgotten the English language in the space of thirty seconds.
But then again…
“What?” Helen breaks the stunned silence. She leans forward, her chin propped up by her hand and her lips pouting ever so slightly. I twist my mouth. It’s clear she’s going to launch into an argument as soon as I finished talking. Bloody lawyers and their moral high ground.
I glance around the rest of the group and receive bemused, gaped expressions in return. Oh yeah, forgot I’m still on display in this poxy West End café with its abominable excuse for Wi-Fi and overpriced drinks. Better than being stuck in the British Museum, I suppose.
“You heard me,” I spit, waving a dismissive hand in the space between us. “And you all know what I mean, so don’t bother arguing with me.”
The five pairs of eyes continue to bore into my skull.
Next to me, Nate whispers into Sally’s ear. They share a glance, Sally laughs nervously and picks at the skin around her cuticles. Eventually, she meets my eye sheepishly and offers me an uncomfortable half smile, she lowers her gaze. A trait she’s had since school, a clear sign that she’s not getting into the scrap that’s about to unfold. Somehow, I can’t blame her.
I clench my jaw, the aroma of overcooked fatty bacon making my stomach churn. Turning my head away, I try to ignore the gentleman behind me as he chews sloppily on his fry up. Reaching for my coffee-normal coffee, none of that fancy shit here thank you-I busy myself and ignore Helen’s raised eyebrows.
“We do the same thing every single bloody day,” I say, ignoring Richard’s huffing opposite me. “Day in, day out. The routine never ends. Nothing changes! Nothing exciting happens anymore,” I glance out of the window. Slowly, I stare through the condensation and take in the fine drizzle of rain that soaks you through to the skin. The constant and painstakingly slow traffic that is ninety percent red double decker buses and black cabs. They crawl along Oxford Street like ants. Every so often, the magic red man annoyingly halts their progress so another tribe can cross the street. A melody of horns trumpet without warning. Suddenly, the green man appears, the cycle begins once more.
A tourist with an infinity of pockets on his trousers, stops by the window and consults his friend. They point up the street and stare intently at a battered and dog eared A to Z of London in their hands. A young man with huge white plastic headphones walks past them. He pays no heed to their hurried questions, their outstretched hands. When I say ‘walk past’ I actually mean, ‘barge into’. The tourists shake their heads, shrug their backpacks higher on their shoulders and carry on their way.
It’s clear they don’t understand the British game of tag. The rules are easy, you mutter angrily at the person who’s bumped into you. They ignore you, deaf to your whispered words of disgust and carry on down the street. Nevertheless, you pick the baton up and walk into a stranger so they have the privilege to pass the game on and on and on.
I blink slowly as I people watch. Each person who hurries along is lost in their own thoughts. Lost in their phones, trying to beat the next level of the latest must have game. All the while, music blasting from their overly sized headphones, creating a symphony of mismatches sounds, loud voices and even louder drum ‘n’ bass. Whatever the hell that is.
What happened to London? The glitz, glamour and shining lights of the West End?
When did it all get so sodding dull?
An elbow buries itself in my side. “It’s called being an adult,” Louis says, following my gaze outside. “We can’t go back to our student days. We have jobs now Artie-“
“Don’t call me Artie.”
“-We need to earn a living, pay the rent and shit like that. We can’t afford to blow money on cheap drinks and entry fees to crappy clubs. The last time I showed up at work pissed, I was forced to go to a disciplinary. I can’t lose my job,” Louis says, shaking his head, his eyes betraying his fatigue.
Richard eyes the shot glasses. “Do you really expect me to drink that? I asked you to get me a cider. I’ve got work in the morning.”
Louis grins and shoves the shot glass into his hand, then claps Richard on the shoulder. “Come on, Rich! Get that stick out of your arse and live a little! I’ve got work tomorrow too, but do I care?” Louis spreads his arms and downs the shot of vodka in one go. Tipping the glass upside down on the bar, he drags a hand across his mouth “No I bloody well don’t!”
I follow suit, supressing a lung retching cough as the vodka scorches my throat. I slam the empty shot glass on the bar and raise my eyebrows, blinking away the stinging tears.
Richard sighs and eyes the glass one last time. He frowns but tips the dry, clear liquid down his throat. He splutters, coughs and throws daggers at Louis, who howls with laughter.
“It tastes like bleach!”
Louis throws his head back and wipes his streaming eyes. “It was either voddy or jagerbombs,” he says reaching for another shot glass. “And I am, and never will be, a teenage girl,” he lifts the glass. “Cheers!”
I stare at Louis for what seems to be an eternity. I slam my hands on the table. Everyone jumps. An empty ceramic mug wobbles.
“But that’s not living!”
The group hide their faces, exchanging exasperated sighs and scarlet faces. Several customers crane their necks, shake their heads in disgust and tut in my direction. How boringly British of them.
An uncomfortable silence stretches, squeezing its way into every nook and cranny of the tiny cafe. The customers slowly turn away and resume making idle chit chat. Like nothing happened.
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” I stand, flinging my arms out. Setting my jaw, I allow my hands to settle on my hips. Richard tries unsuccessfully to hide his smirk behind his lardy-dah coffee.
Nate sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “We had to grow up, Arthur. We had to, otherwise what were we going to do? I want to make something of my life, really do something. It’s alright for you. You can con your parents into lending you as much money as you want so you can run away to some far off country.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Helen nodding. She blinks and looks me dead in the eye. “You just take off without a word. We don’t hear back from you for weeks. Normally your parents tell us where you’ve fucked off to. Was there even a reason for that trip to New York last month?”
“Of course there’s a reason! It was for my article-”
“Are we still pretending that you’re a journalist?” Sally pipes up from behind her hot chocolate. “I mean, when did you last get something published?”
Blood rushes to my cheeks. I look down at the grubby floor and attempt to swallow past the boulder that’s suddenly formed in my throat. Five pairs of eyes are back on me, waiting for me to surrender, to let the conversation go and move onto a new subject.
My mouth twitches. All my prepared words that were carefully dipped in venom and frozen solid, with their ragged and razor sharp edges, they vanished. These words had warmed and melted into nothingness, the air sucked from my lungs in a single moment. A bead of sweat creates a trail as it slides down my back.
“That’s right, Artie,” Richard spits, as he leans back, a smirk dancing merrily on his lips. “None. You’re no journalist, you’re nothing. Hell, you’re the one who’s not living.”
My hands ache as I let go of the wooden table, small splinters bury themselves further into my skin as I clench my hands. Silently, I reach for my wallet and throw a couple of notes on the table. Pushing my chair back, enjoying the screech it makes on the floor, like nails on a chalkboard. I storm out of the café, ignoring my friends’ shouts and yells, ignore the amused and disgusted glances from strangers.
The door chimes shut as I step onto the pavement and receive a sharp elbow in my side from a stranger. He turns, swears at me and carries on down the street. I blink, my feet move forward of their own accord.
I find myself outside my flat. Slowly, I stomp up the uneven stone steps and unlock the blue door. I let it slam shut, the echo bounces off the walls in the small hallway and ricochets into my ears. My pocket vibrates for what seems to be the millionth time since I left that bloody café. I reach for my knackered mobile and throw at the sofa that should have been replaced ten years ago. I can’t find the energy to be glad and slightly smug that it landed on the sofa and not on the floor.
Small mercies, I suppose.
I methodically follow the motions of anyone who has returned home after a long, egregious day. Toeing my shoes off, hang my jacket next to the door. Pick up the post that’s littering the floor. Stumble through to the tiny kitchen, throw the letters down in disgust and switch the kettle on.
“A good cup of tea will set you right,” Mum says as I lay my head on the table. She rests her hand on my head and threads her fingers through my hair. “It’ll all work out love, you’ll see.”
“But what if it doesn’t? What if I’m making a mistake?” I ask as I reach for the mug that sits so invitingly in front of me.
Mum sits down next to me, her own mug perched on a coaster. She sighs, but offers me a smile. One I can’t find the energy to return.
“It’s scary for anyone who leaves home, but you’ll soon forget all about me and your sister. And it’s only Reading, it’s not a million miles away. You can come home whenever you want. You know that, Arthur,” she says, pushing a plate of biscuits towards me.
A disgruntled noise flies from my lips before I have chance to stop it. Mum chuckles softly and sips her tea.
“And if I find out you’ve been smoking again, I’ll come to Reading and tell everyone you still watch the Disney Channel.”
My eyebrows shoot skywards, the mug pauses in the space between the table and my lips, suspended like a puppet on a string. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Mum grins, “Try it and find out. What have you got to lose?”
The kettle clicks and I follow the process everyone knows from the moment they’re born. Mug, teabag, hot water, milk and one sugar. Always in that order. Anyone who does it in any other order, well they’re clearly mental and in need of medical help immediately.
I plonk myself down at my desk, setting the mug next to my elbow. The screen of my laptop comes to life. The text stares back at me.
Application for a Master’s degree at the University of Stirling
I sigh heavily.