Glancing around at the loved up couples, dotted about the pub as if awaiting instruction from Noah, I hoped that this wasn’t a sign of things to come. Did my life as I’d always known it have an expiry date, after all I was approaching thirty, a whole new decade? Maybe this ill-fated visit to see my family was an omen.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to spend time with them – I did. But a week was too long and there’s only so much time you can spend in your parents’ front room, watching TV shows you never even knew existed. Anyway, that’s how I’d found myself in this dreary pub surrounded by dreary people. Earlier on in the day, I’d been slouching around in my pyjamas, getting under my mother’s feet; no doubt making her regret suggesting a week rather than the usual weekend and causing her to shake her head in exasperation. "Why don't you phone Beverley, you've not seen her for ages?"
That was an understatement, we’d been good friends at college but there’d been only a couple of awkward meetings since we’d gone our separate ways. I’d moved away to university and Beverley had trained to be a nurse. That wasn’t the real reason we drifted apart though – we’d tried to keep in touch but our lifestyles became too different. During her first couple of months of nursing Beverley had met a policeman, escorting some drunk who needed stitches, and that was that. The next time I saw her, it was all mortgages, engagement rings and holidays in Puerto Banus and I was left wondering if maybe she’d switched places with an alien.
After that our friendship dwindled until it was just birthday and Christmas cards. In fact, last birthday, when I hadn’t received a card, I thought maybe Beverley was severing the ties completely. But then a week later I got a postcard from Tenerife, gushing about her holiday with the in-laws and wishing me a belated happy birthday. And then, this morning, I stupidly made the call that resulted in the pair of us nursing glasses of wine with absolutely nothing to say to each other.
It had been a mistake that was for certain and now all that remained was to find a way of making a dignified exit. I wondered if the thin membrane of the birthday and Christmas cards would hold up, after this awkward acknowledgement that we no longer really knew each other. At first Beverley had spoken animatedly about people who I had never met. “Sally said…” “Julie laughed…” “Debbie thought…” I nodded effusively my face aching, a bright, empty smile desperately trying to prevent my boredom from slipping through.
Beverley’s chatter was all a front though, trying to hide the fact that she felt as adrift as I did and, once the well of inane stories had run dry, we faced each other stiffly, our silly fake smiles mirroring each other painfully. Relief took hold as Beverley made a show of looking at her watch.
“Wow, nearly 10 o’clock, I told Rich I wouldn’t be late." “It’s been great,” I lied maybe a little bit too enthusiastically. “Yeah, we should do it again.” I tried not to smile at the pointlessness of her words. I suppose she was only trying to be polite but we both knew we wouldn’t be coming back. “Can I give you a lift home?” She was already on her feet now that escape was in sight. “No, that’s okay, I fancy a walk.”
Waving her off, I turned to see someone who looked vaguely familiar, leaning against the pub, a half smile tugging at his mouth.
“Look who it is,” he laughed, “Nicola Reid.” Approaching him cautiously, something in the back of my mind, that I hadn’t even remembered was there, sprang into life. “Mark Barker! Oh my God – I’ve not seen you since we left school.” Lifting an amused eyebrow, he chuckled throatily.
"It’s been a while.”
Moving closer, hesitating, unsure whether to offer the hug that felt instinctive and yet ridiculously over familiar, I studied Mark carefully. He’d always been good looking, in that mischievous, boyish kind of way, but there was something else now lingering beneath the surface. Something that made me think life hadn’t been all that kind to him. Studying me just as keenly as I was studying him, he reached into his jeans, pulling out a squashed packet of cigarettes. Wordlessly, he angled the pack my way.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke.” Lighting one up for himself, he drew on it heavily before speaking.
“So what have you been up to?”
For some reason, I didn’t want to tell him about my life. His knowing eyes made me feel like a buttoned up frump, all squared away in my middle-class little world. “Not much, just here visiting my parents. What about you?”
“Oh this and that.” “Do you want to get a drink?” I asked impulsively, surprised by my sudden desire to stay out when only 10 minutes before I couldn’t wait to go home. “What about a drive?” Mark’s eyes were daring me to say yes. “Okay.”
I knew what I was doing by agreeing to the ride, what I was risking by slipping back into the old days. Pushing away from the wall, Mark moved purposefully down the road where cars lined both sides of the street, casually testing door handles as he went. Trailing after him, I castigated my own stupidity. What the hell was I doing?
“Yes!” he hissed as a car door opened, quickly climbing in behind the wheel. This was it, now or never. I jogged the last few steps, reaching the car as the passenger door opened as if by magic.
Speeding away from the scene of the crime, I could feel excitement emanating from Mark as he laughed manically.
“Fuck, I haven’t done this for years.” He cast an amused look my way as I clicked my seatbelt into place, trying to mask my fear with a smile.
“Maybe, I should just go home.” “Oh for fuck’s sake, can’t you feel the buzz?” I suppose I could, if I was honest, but more than that I could feel the grim certainty that if we were caught my life would be over. I’d lose my job, I’d lose everything.
Trying not to look at the speedometer, I felt queasy as Mark’s wild recklessness careered around the tight confines of the car like a pinball. “You used to like this,” he shouted over the sound of the wind whipping in through his open window.
“Yeah, when I was a teenager with no sense!”
“Oh come on, it’s just a laugh. “Slow down, Mark, please, I feel sick.” The car immediately slowed to the legal speed and Mark shrugged easily. “Where shall we go?” “Why don’t you drive back to the pub and leave the car where we found it?”
“I will, later, let’s just drive somewhere first. What about the park?”
I’d not been to the park in years, why would I? And yet here we were, the years sliding away, sitting side-by-side on the swings where we used to share all our hopes, dreams and fears. “I’d forgotten about this place,” I laughed.
"I sometimes come here with my sister’s kid. It reminds me of you.” I felt a stab of sadness because nothing in my new life reminded me of Mark. In fact, I’d forgotten all about him until tonight. “I can’t believe you still live here.” “Where else would I live?” “I don’t know, you always said you wanted to travel.”
The rattling of the chains, from the swings’ slight motion, suddenly sounded extraordinarily loud in the dark, silent night. “I’m probably going away tomorrow,” Mark said taking me by surprise. “Really? Where to?” “Depends where they send me, could be Donny.” “What? What do you mean – for your job?” “Not exactly. I’m up in court tomorrow, probably going to get sent down.” “Oh my God! Why, what did you do?” “Robbery.”
We lapsed back into the silence, there wasn’t much left to say. “Maybe you’ll get community service or something,” I finally offered hopefully.
“Doubt it.” We remained on the swings for little bit longer but we both knew there was nothing there for us.
“Do you want me to drive you home?”
“I’m not sure.” “There’ll be no cops about at this time; it’ll only take a few minutes.”
Climbing out of the car outside my parents’ house, I was glad when we didn’t pretend that we were still friends. Mark nodded goodbye, his eyes laughing at my uncertainty as I leaned down to look into the car.
“Good luck, tomorrow.” Slamming the door shut and watching the stolen car disappear around the corner, I knew I was saying goodbye to something more than a childhood friend. My mum didn’t push it when I said my evening out had been a bit of a letdown and, when it was time for me to get the train home, I think we were all secretly relieved.
Killing time in WH Smiths at the station, I was aware of a lightness, a feeling of anything being possible, just as soon as I put some miles between me and this place. Reaching for a magazine, I caught sight of the local paper. The headline causing me to stop in my tracks. “Armed robber gets 20 years!” And there, just beneath the headline, an achingly familiar face.