Eliot Lamb has dreaded this occasion for the past three years of his life - the last night of university. Gathered with his mates in the King's Arms for one final, historic night on the lash, he begins the ultimate descent: Pub, Bar, Club. As he stares into the foam of his debut pint, he knows that before the night reaches its climactic conclusion on the sweaty dance-floor of Filth he must solve the dilemma of his knotty love-life, risk his closest friendship, face up to a tragic secret, and deal with the fact that he hasn't a clue what to do with the rest of his life.
Noughties raises a glass to all the youthful confusion, fierce ambition and helpless yearning that characterises student life. Eliot may know a lot about Renaissance poetry, the post-modern novel, French literary theory and how to get hammered at a highly competitive rate, but he is fast realising that adult life beckons, and it's going to be asking a lot more of him than that.
This is how it begins. This is how it always begins. Four flat characters sitting round
a table, with our pints of snakebite, our pints of diesel.
We contort our faces into gruesome grandeur, gurning with eloquence and verve: Scott
with his question-mark nose, Jack with his inverted-comma eyebrows, Sanjay with his
squarebracket ears. Nodding and grunting and twitching our legs, we clutch our carbonated
weapons of mass destruction.
My name is Eliot Lamb. I’m the one with the fi erce mane. Utterly fantastic it is:
blond, wavy, thick, and full of spunk. You can tell I’ve gone to a lot of eff ort with the
old creams and unguents, but it is a special occasion after all: it’s our last night at
university. I’ve even cultivated some designer stubble, sprinkled over my rosy face like
Morse code, with all its dots and dashes. And if the code was readable it would go
something like this: There’s a lot on my mind tonight, pal – oh such a lot – and things
could get very messy.
We are in the King’s Arms, Oxford, rainy weekend eve, unfortunate travellers fumbling
our way into the sticky crotch of a night on the lash.
This is the end, beautiful friend, the end. Our university finale; the last time we’ll
ever do this. The real world snaps viciously at our cracked-skin heels, groaning of
jacket-and-tie, briefcase-headcase, hair-receding, tumble-dry mortality. I stare into the
bottom of my pint glass and glimpse faint outlines of the infi nite. I gaze into the
Sip, sip, chug: ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ – four pressurized valves released and
relieved, letting off steam.
‘I needed that,’ blurts Jack, right on cue.
Scott: ‘Anyone else out tonight?’
(A droopy old man falters past. He wears the heady bonfires and dissident blossoms of
the cool summer air, stirring fragrances of ale and tobacco.)
‘I sent a loada texts’ (that’s me). My tripwire legs are vibrating beneath the table,
compulsive and anxious. ‘Some of the girls are coming in a bit,’ I add judiciously.
Rhyming nods of solemn approval. Jack traces his high-rise quiff just to make sure it’s
Glug, glug, swallow.
The phone in my pocket chatters, clamping after my testicles with cancerous claw. I
don’t reach for it. It’ll be Lucy.
She rang just before I came out, but I was a bit hesitant and evasive, needing to fi x
myself for the big night – picking the right shirt, nailing the hair, generally ogling the
mirror in a you-talking-to-me-type fashion – and also being at an awkward place in my
character development: I already have something pressing to face up to . . . something
that needs to be dealt with, tonight. I do feel bad about Lucy though. She sounded,
well, nervous; lost somehow. It was all the preambling that got in the way: Where are
you, are you on your own, please don’t overreact to what I have to say. I was running
late and that was valuable time spent already. Only now I have the feeling that it was
something important . . . must’ve been . . . I mean, we don’t really talk on the phone any
more, and my promise to call her later seemed desperately inadequate. I should’ve just
heard her out. But she was the last person I wanted to speak to, given my plans for
Maybe I’ll send her a text in a bit.
She doesn’t go here – Oxford, that is – not being the academic type. She’ll be making a
lot of appearances though, whether haunting from the margins or dancing resplendent across
my imagination, and she’s playing on my mind already.
The King’s Arms is filled to spilling point. Students run rampant in red-cheeked
naïvety. With military-front precision the place bares its insistent demographics: fl
owery thespians with lager for Yorick skulls; meathead rugby players (cauliflower-eared,
broccoli-beard, potato-reared) floundering in homoeroticism; red-corduroyed socialites
with upturned collars and likewise noses; bohemian Billies and Brionys, all scarves, hats,
and paisley skirts; indie chics and glam gloss chicks; crushed-velvet Tory boys feigning
agedness; pub golfers and fancy-dress bar crawlers; lads and ladettes, chavs and
chavettes; and the locals, frowning at the whole motley spectacle. And then there’s us:
the noughties. We are quotidian calamities; unwitting lyricisms; veritable Wordsworths out
on the razz, lugging twentieth-century regret on our backs.
How to convey the gang to you . . . Scott, Jack, and Sanjay . . . Well, I like to
buttonhole people; fasten them in nice and tight wherever I see fi t and wait for the
holes to sag. The buttons begin to shuffl e and slide, impatient with the restriction. And
then – the hold worn, no longer adequate – they break free. Excuse the ready exchange of
metaphors, but as Augie March says, there is no accuracy or fineness of suppression; if
you hold one thing down you hold the adjoining. My style is to hold everything
down, as firmly as possible, and hope that only the most vigorous stuff rises.
So, there’s Jack, still my best mate (I think) and clown extraordinaire. Right now he’s
clenching a pint of Stella and wearing a white-collared blue shirt (sleeves rolled, top
three buttons undone), fl ashing a hairless chest with each flap of the loose collar, his
shortish brown cut moulded to aerodynamic specifications. Next to Jack is Scott, rocking a
sprawl of auburn without styling gel (he’s private school and they don’t really do hair
product like us staties). Scott’s drinking Kronenbourg and chancing a pink shirt. He’s
bigger than the rest of us, being a college rower and rugby player, but he has the softer
disposition, his various insecurities taking the edge off his muscles. Jack and I have
affected occasional gym regimes ourselves, though we never actually change shape or size,
clinging to our coat-hanger frames and the self-assuring consolation that ‘girls don’t
like big men’. They don’t. Muscle freaks them out. Still, we bought a barrel of protein
shake at the start of our second year, hoping it might prove the key to the kind of rapid
muscle development we felt we deserved. I was happy just mixing the potion in with a glass
of milk after each workout, while Jack all-out binged on the stuff , sprinkling it on his
cornflakes, dipping crisps and chocolate bars, pouring it into his bedside glass of water,
even layering it on top of his toothpaste. Naturally our bodies stayed stubbornly put: no
tightening of skin, no swell of veins, no progression in shirt size. Don’t get me wrong,
we’re not runts or anything . . . just bothersomely average. And fi nally there’s Sanjay
(Stella), wearing his black Fred Perry with the white trimming. It’s his ‘lucky’ shirt,
though I can’t testify to the accuracy of the appellation. If it does attract the fairer
sex it’s certainly not working its voodoo tonight: our table is demonstrably cock heavy.
Sanjay has a little blinking tic going on. Every now and then he is able to shake it off ,
but as soon as you remind him (‘Hey, Sanj, I haven’t seen you do the blink in ages’) it
returns (‘Oh, for fuck sake’ wink wink). You want to know what I’m wearing too? Black
jeans, on the skinnier side of slim fit, and a blue and white check shirt. Stella.
We’re over at the quiz machine, slurping our student loans and tossing shrapnel into
the slot. Gather round . . .
Q: In Brideshead Revisited, what is the name of Sebastian’s teddy bear?
A: Paddington B: Rupert
C: Aloysius D: Baloo
Drink while you think.
‘C’mon, Eliot, you do English,’ says Jack.
‘Did English. I’m fi nished now, ain’t I?’ I protest. ‘How the fuck should I
know anyway?’ Jack, a physicist, has always wondered what exactly it is that I do
know – literature as an academic pursuit being entirely mysterious to him – and is looking
at me doubtfully. The only social utility of my subject that he can make out is its
occasional propensity for propelling progress on quiz machines, as well as select rounds
of University Challenge. ‘But yeah,’ I add. ‘It’s definitely Aloysius.’
English: I’ve served three years. Pulling all-nighters over weekly essays, arguing
indefensible points with unswerving commitment, and defying all common sense with
consistent ill-logic, I’ve completed my subject. English. I’m nearly fluent now, mate. But
what next? Back to Wellingborough I guess. (I feel it closing in like an obscene womb,
pulling me into its suff ocating folds . . .) And then what?
‘Fuck yeah,’ shouts Jack, selecting the correct answer.
There goes my phone again. Lucy.