They hadn’t seen each other for the longest time. There were the cut-outs, the soundbites, of course: the pieces of a person you find scattered across social media. But even they, who had reached adolescence at the moment online proxy-selves became commonplace, knew these were not quite the same thing as meeting in person.
It would be like this: once a year they chose a pub, somewhere central but out of the main thoroughfare, to stage their reunion. Each new round of drinks provided the time in which the next member of the group could tell the others all they had accomplished these last twelve months, the extraordinary things they had seen and the ways it had altered them. Every member of the group would have a story prepared, its particular nadirs and climaxes felt out in advance, but with some room left for deviation to make the tale elastic and surprising in the telling.
It would be fair to say that not one of them was looking forward to these celebratory drinks. Each felt a kind of pre-emptive fatigue, knowing that this event would take effort, not only to keep up the momentum of their own story but to remain thrilled and happy for the others as they narrated theirs. Because, of course, there is nothing more important than having your achievements recognised and nothing worse than having to concede even the worthier achievements of your peers.
One of the group had wept in the arms of their partner before leaving the house, needing consolation in the form of a densely bulleted list of reasons why they were, though not yet successful, still a Talented and Worthy equal to their friends. The partner did not feel insincere giving these, but looked forward to the day when the person they loved would stop seeing these old friends, whom the partner regarded as both toxic and lacking some vital understanding of the world that would allow them to simply live in it, rather than attempting to conjure it for themselves.
Another member of the group had drafted and then deleted three versions of a flippant-enough-sounding message to the WhatsApp group, excusing themselves due to a forgotten:
collaboration with a quite significant artist, whose name they would not give so as to protect their desired anonymity.
important interview with a quite significant artist, who they wished they could name, but for now everyone would just have to Watch. This. Space.
date with a quite significant artist that might in the future, they hoped, lead to some sort of melancholy piece of writing about dating artists.
Regrettably, it turned out that it was impossible to express how well they would soon be doing in a single line of text – they would have to go after all. Before they left the flat though, they took some pictures of their most interesting sculptures to show off when they were inevitably asked for examples of their latest work.
A third member of the group chain-smoked three of the remaining four cigarettes in what they had termed the ‘Final Pack’, the finishing of which had become their ‘Rubicon’. Once across, they would at last be viceless and could inform others how they had once smoked, ‘when they were young’, but that it was the kind of habit that ‘just seemed sad on someone in their early-thirties’. Objectively this friend was the most successful of the lot and they knew it. They liked how you could be objective about success. There were quantifiable measures for it, like their nice flat with its proximity to a station in an area that was both cool and expensive, like the name of the illustrious newspaper they worked for, like the way people now came to them asking how they could ‘make it’, too. They did not like how, despite these facts which they reminded themselves of each night like a prayer that they still felt inadequate amongst their friends. Nor did they like the touch of resentment they experienced as they imagined their friend kissing their attractive partner goodbye as they left whatever shitty flat they were living in these days. They vowed not to ask about the attractive partner once.
The last friend, stricken with nerves, had attempted a rousing pep-talk in front of the Dulled Mirror some past tenant had left on the mantelpiece in their house share’s narrow hall, besides which a pile of letters addressed to a hundred different names of past occupants was growing ever higher. In this speech – which was interrupted once by a younger tenant who’d just moved in saying they were going out to get milk, and once more when they returned with milk, which purchase they were irrationally excited about, it being ‘the first thing they’d bought for the house!’ – they decided to focus not on their achievements from the past year, but their projections for the future. Yes, that was the way to do it.
Dulled Mirror was the first to arrive, as they had been for the past four years. It was their way of retaining some power within the group: if they could at least choose the table, the reunion would begin on their terms: with the others congratulating them on their excellent decision. Final Pack and WhatsApp arrived at the same time from opposite directions, both deciding to gaze intently at the pavement for as long as possible so as to delay acting out the mock-surprise of seeing the other right there, right opposite them after all this time. Ten minutes later, Talented and Worthy bounded over to the table at a run, forcefully hugging each friend in turn, searching their eyes for a few seconds longer than was appropriate so that each felt momentarily naked and had to look away.
Once they were settled, they decided it was surprisingly nice, after all that worry, to be together again in a very nice pub, recently renovated and price-hiked. Each congratulated themselves for asking the others how they were doing without asking what they were doing, which proved to them all that there were things in this life more important than work. Isn’t it nice, they said, that we can sit in a nice, airy room and just catch up without any of us needing to mention our work.
As soon as this had been voiced, however, it became increasingly apparent that their initial chat had only ever served as a countdown to the point at which they would finally get down to it and begin the self-adulation.
Talented and Worthy bought the first round. They ordered London Pride for the other three, the only lager on tap for themselves and two plates of chips, but were told by the bar staff that they’d been having oven issues and so were offered three consolatory packets of crisps instead, which Talented and Worthy split along their seams and laid out on the table as an offering.
‘OK, so I’ve mainly been percolating this half of the year…’ Talented and Worthy started, their hands clasped tightly in their lap under the table. Despite being proud of their choice of verb, which they’d already shoehorned into several conversations that month, this feeling was quickly displaced by embarrassment at how negligible this must sound to the others, so they qualified it with: ‘because the beginning of the year was so crazy busy.’
‘Crazy busy,’ the others echoed in affirmation, shaking their heads knowingly and not a little mournfully.
‘Yeah, I…’ the friend took a breath to eat a few crisp fragments, ‘quit my job last month!’
‘Very cool!’ WhatsApp raised their glass and the others felt bound to reciprocate the gesture.
‘What are you doing for money?’ Final Pack asked as soon as the drinks were firmly back on the table.
‘They’ll work it out!’ WhatsApp said. ‘Fear is good: it forces you to seek inspiration.’ They liked speaking in these abstract terms, which seemed to strengthen the force of whatever they were saying.
Dulled Mirror said nothing. They wished they had the courage to seek inspiration.
Finding themselves buoyed by the thumps on the back from WhatsApp, Talented and Worthy stepped up the pace. ‘And obviously I travelled, to the States actually, all the way across, almost… wrote a photo-journal about it online, which I think is getting picked up somewhere…’ They paused. At what point after you begin speaking is it too late to go back on what you’ve said? They looked at the expectant faces before them. No, they had to go on.
‘Where was I? Yeah, I learned a lot, like a whole new way of being and that I could never be in an office again and then I moved in with my partner and we’re so happy and, yeah, now I’m just… percolating, before it gets crazy busy again.’
In the silence while the friends appraised the value of what had been said against their own past years, Talented and Worthy finished their beer and announced they were going to the toilet, but to please carry on without them until they got back.
By the time they had locked the cubicle door behind them and put the toilet lid down to sit upon it, the energy with which they’d arrived had dried up.
Wish I could come home now, they texted their partner.
This is so exhausting think I might die.
Tell me I’m OK.
You’re good. Their partner texted back. Don’t drink too much.
Meanwhile, Final Pack was feeling increasingly ashamed that they had not travelled once this year, that they had only worked very hard and got very, very senior – for their age – at the newspaper, where they spent their days formatting bile-rich opinion pieces.
‘I’m so jealous you’ve had the time to travel,’ they said as soon as Talent and Worthy returned, whose eyes were only marginally brighter and redder than before, the kind of subtle change that only Talented and Worthy themselves would have noticed. This sounded far sharper than Final Pack had intended. It often happened that when they were at their most despondent, their words came out in a cruel flare directed at whoever else was present.
This trait, their editor had told them, was what made them such a fine journalist.
Final Pack got bored whenever they had to speak about themselves. It wasn’t that they disliked autobiography – it was their favourite genre. But what they liked about the stories of other people’s lives was what they felt missing from their own: the twists and turns that caused the pages to sing. This made them sad. While they spoke, they racked their brains for some swooping emotional crescendo with which to end that would shake the cobwebs from the narrative.
They settled on: ‘But I guess the main thing is that I’ve discovered happiness outside the four walls of the office, you know? Yeah, I am happy!’ They slapped the table harder than was necessary.
No one wanted to go next. Final Pack was so undeniably and tangibly successful and happy that what was the point? There was a brief pause in which only Final Pack saw as the barman leant forward passionately to kiss the customer sat at the bar, who did not notice as the tobacco from their recently rolled cigarette slipped out and sprinkled down onto the carpet.
Eventually, Dulled Mirror began their own prepared speech. ‘I am not going to tell you what I’ve done,’ they said, bravely, ‘I’m going to tell you what I will do next.’ WhatsApp loved this and gave them a friendly poke in the ribs. Dulled Mirror had always been their favourite, they thought – the most aligned with them in terms of spirit. ‘As of next month,’ they started by saying week but just about managed to replace it with the word month before it had fully left their mouth, ‘I’m going to take over from my friend who’s a lorry driver.’ Dulled Mirror said that lorry driving would give them a greater and more meaningful appreciation of the country’s character and that after five or so years they’d probably switch to driving trucks somewhere more precarious, like Alaska.
No one knew what to say to this and so they commented again on how well Dulled Mirror had done to arrive early and choose such a good table.
Hot on their heels and slightly slurring by this point, as it was indeed their fourth pint, WhatsApp described the latest artwork they were creating, and how it would help provide roots for a whole generation of disconnected, depressed young people, giving them something stable to hold on to that would simultaneously act as a ‘fuck you’ to all those who had come before and assumed they would amount to nothing.
WhatsApp wasn’t sure what they expected the others to say to this. The lacklustre response from their companions left them too deflated even to show the images they’d brought on their phone.
‘And,’ they had to keep going now, ‘and it will help to solve this sad mess of a world – because it will be sustainable.’ WhatsApp half-swallowed the final part of the sentence so no one was quite sure how it was they planned to solve this sad mess of a world.
With that, it was over. They had all survived. As they finished their final drinks their conversation revolved back through previous reunions, then nostalgia for a past which none of them actually enjoyed, but which they felt it was imperative to act as though they had.
During these last twenty or so minutes, Talented and Worthy had been thinking of their mother.
Before her death they had only cried when they were afraid: during horror films, when they thought about climate change and the like. Now at least once each day they found their chest knotted and their breath short until they lay down on the kitchen floor, rocking themselves and weeping for as long as it took for the sensation to pass. Crying felt, to them, like the relief of a glass of cold water after a very long run.
Their mother, whose native tongue had not been English, expressed herself not through content but form: love was the reciprocal squeezing of arms and the catching of one’s voice in the throat; happiness was the way you held your body wide open to the world.
While the other friends were putting on their coats and promising that next time it would not be so long between meet-ups and that they’d find better ways to remain close to each other, Talented and Worthy felt a new form rising in them. They picked up the empty packets of crisps, scrunched them in their hands and put them down again. ‘OK,’ they said. ‘OK!’
WhatsApp, Dulled Mirror and Final Pack turned around to watch as Talented and Worthy, still seated at the table, threw their hands up in the air and cried out – in a voice so loud that the kissing pair at the bar momentarily came up for air – that they had not gone to America, because they did not have the money and because they had been both scared to go alone and scared that it would not be life-changing enough. ‘But,’ they continued, ‘I’m proud that you all have.’
The others said nothing. They felt the endless American road they had imagined Talented and Worthy driving along curl up, like a piece of ribbon across which the blade of a pair of scissors has been drawn. For Final Pack especially, this was not a welcome admission. How typical of Talented and Worthy to undermine everything they had achieved with a single sentence. Do they expect me to tell them now that I’m also unhappy? Would that make them feel better, to know that I’ve failed too? they wondered. But Final Pack did not have the language with which to express such a thing, so kept quiet.
Dulled Mirror heard the metal roof of the lorry they were to spend the next years of their life driving blow off. They felt an immense desire to concede to their friends that it would not happen, that the lorry dream was just something they kept on the backburner and that articulating it alone brought them enough light to keep going. But they could not say it for fear of disappointing WhatsApp.
For a moment, WhatsApp pictured their artwork of a generation collapsing into a sculpture resembling some kind of seabird made out of plastic bottles and had to pull it back together again with great effort, so that it remained something that shone with meaning. They could not understand the lack of integrity, the bone idleness displayed by their friend, who had already given up on everything. In the end, they took Talented and Worthy’s hand and said quite earnestly, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t go to America, but I hope you do someday.’
Talented and Worthy did not leave when the others did. ‘One more drink,’ they had said, ‘I think I’ll have one more, but don’t wait up.’ They felt too light to make the journey home just yet, like they might be blown right off the pavement. A final drink would stabilise them.
As they ordered their last pint, a break came in the generic music that had been playing out of the speakers all evening while the bar staff switched over to their closing-time playlist, pointedly selected for being the exact opposite in style to the easy, unremarkable music preferred by the pub’s manager.
It took from the moment the opening chords rang out until the song’s opening lyric for it to happen. First, the spark from the barman’s lighter, which was halfway up to his new conquest’s cigarette as they stood close together in the doorway to the pub’s back garden, ignited the gas that had been pouring out from the pub kitchen’s oven, earlier pronounced broken by the bar staff. The lit gas expanded at such a rate that it burst through the door to the main room. Once in, the fire found further fuel in the contents of various bottles of spirits that simultaneously exploded apart as a result of the immense heat. It then proceeded to knock over every table and chair, cause each window to shatter in turn before the wall of flames even reached them and, finally, blow out the speaker system just as the main singer took her first breath.
The friends waiting outside for their Ubers instinctively covered their heads as glass and debris rained down onto the pavement. The row of parked cars outside burst into alarm and the evening sky turned grey with smoke. The whole road stank of burned liquor.
By the time the fire engines had arrived, the three of them had gathered on the curb opposite. They sat close together, their arms around each other, despite it being unbearably hot, and their eyes fixed on the entrance to the pub, out of which a thick, black fog was issuing.
It took just thirty minutes to extinguish the fire. They were surprised by how quickly an end to something so destructive could be brought about. They had imagined they would be based there all night, waiting to offer their support to the wounded. ‘You should go,’ a fireman came over to tell them, wiping the soot from his sweaty forehead, ‘there’s nothing more to be done here.’
In the years that followed, the explosion would find reference in the creative output of all three friends. It was this brush with both tragedy and a kind of grandeur, they believed, that had elevated their work to the ‘next level’. When they remembered that night, they could still picture the glistening faces of their companions beside them on that curb, faces which reflected the same expression revealed in their own features: not of horror or sadness, but of anticipation. Naturally, they kept close watch of each other’s careers on social media, now and then gracing them with likes and shares. But their collective and instant recognition of how they might benefit from what had happened that night ensured they could never see each other in person again.