Wednesday, June 26

This is England, this is London

WITH HIS IMPENDING departure imminent, we had been planning a meal out at lunchtime for a while; a more formal send-off; a chance for a good-bye between us, with no one else around. Work obligations had got in the way, but today we made the time. He is due to leave work on Friday and then the country – for good – on Monday.
On the walk down there, we discussed the persecution of the Jews in 1930’s Germany – inspired by a book I’m reading – and I realised that I had no such conversation with any other person, and would surely miss them when he left. He is well-read, so he explained some things to me, and I absorbed them properly. Then a beautiful woman walked past with her breasts out, bouncing in the sun with the tan and crescent of white like fingernails. We both trailed off and when she passed we spoke excitedly of how perfect her breasts were. The sun was shining enough so that the shade of the leaves from a large overhanging tree was shaking on the pavement in perfect detail. We waited outside the restaurant – a suggestion of mine – while we smoked our cigarettes (tobacco that was mine, brought from Greece by him). I hadn’t been to the restaurant in over a year; the last visit was on a lunchtime date with a girl I met in a club; the date went terribly and I haven’t seen her since. It was cool and dark down there and our eyes took time to adjust. It was quiet, too, only a few tables taken up by others in suits and expense accounts.
‘What’s good?’
‘I like that one … this one might be a bit too hot but it’ll clear up my hayfever, no problem.’
‘That looks good, man … starters?’
‘Those are delicious. I have them every time I visit.’
‘I’ll have them, too, then.’
We ordered beers, which arrived right away.
All morning I had been in a terrible mood; cursing, smashing my hand into the table, staring into space, breaking into sweats. For some reason, I was very nervous having lunch with him. I sat there playing with my hands and not knowing what to do. ‘Six years,’ he said, summing up the length of our friendship. Very quickly I felt overwhelmed by sadness and could not think of anything to say. I drank my beer and ordered another round. He started to make talk. I said how nice it was to meet his friends last Thursday and to put faces to names, after all I’d heard of them. He asked about my friends. ‘I don’t really have any,’ I told him. I could not even bring myself to lie about it. My mind was lost for a lie. I thought of picking some people from secondary school, telling him they were my friends, making up amusing anecdotes and whole histories, but it seemed pointless – ‘No, I don’t have any friends.’
‘Why not?’
‘Hmm, I dunno, really. I’m not much good with them. I’m a terrible friend. I like being alone. Very rarely will I want to go out and socialise, I just like being by myself.’
‘What about from your hometown, there is no one you hang around?’
‘No, not really. I’ll see them on the train, maybe, or when I’m walking around town. That’s all I like to do: I’ll just go into town on my own and sit outside a caf’ and drink coffee and smoke and look at the people passing me by.’
He understood. Rather than make excuses, he understood me completely and exhibited no shame on my behalf. The beer on my empty stomach was getting to me, allowing me to be relaxed. The starter came and we paused often to talk. I asked him what he would do when he got back to Greece and the life he planned to lead, and I told him not to get bored or to let his brain go to pittle, because, after all, it was a good brain.
The mains came and we shared them, eating ravenously. I had forgotten all about my sadness. There was a lot of joy – as friendship will sometimes hold – in hearing about his new life and the family he plans to begin with his soon-to-be fiancĂ©e. I envied him; a new life, new perspective, new reasons to get up in the morning.
Outside the daylight was very bright again. We lit our cigarettes and walked, with heavy bellies, back to the office.
‘Tell me, man, I’m thinking of doing this on Thursday night – do you think it’s weird, tell me – I am going to say when we get to Moorgate to all the people on the tube – “Hello, you don’t know me and I don’t know you but I have been taking this same train to and from work everyday for the past six years and now I am going back to Greece to marry the girl I love and start a family.” ’
I smiled.
‘I dunno, man. This is England, this is London. They’ll probably just stare at you and not know what to do. They’ll bury their heads in their newspapers.’
He nodded and laughed – ‘I don’t know. I want to do it. I don’t know why.’ He was always very frank when he spoke. He talked like a child.
‘You’re better off telling them to go fuck themselves, that you’re going to somewhere where they actually have a summer.’
He laughed, and agreed.
Later on the chairman and I were working in the boardroom and I kept yawning, feeling the booze and food in my stomach, wishing to nap. The chairman was leaving the country in a matter of hours. When we had finished what we were working through, he spoke to me of my friend. He and my friend had a good relationship – as my friend is the manager of a sister company. The chairman pretended to cry. It was his British way of being sad that such a man and such an employee was leaving.
‘He’s irreplaceable,’ I told the chairman.
‘He is … honestly, I think he’ll get bored over there.’
‘I’ve told him not to let his brain go to pittle. I don’t think he ever will; that’s just him.’
‘He won’t. Don’t you worry. He’ll always find something to do, or invent.’
It was true.
When the two of them said good-bye, I went for a cigarette; for some reason, I didn’t want to see it. Everything felt as though it were in limbo; we were waiting for something that was going to happen, but was going to take its time. I’ve seen my share of good friends come and go from the company, and I’m still here, still there. And I shall still be there, standing somewhat aslant, once everyone else has forgotten how to spell his name.

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