What if the homeless man you’ve just given money to thanks you by name and turns out to be one of your closest friends, one you haven’t seen for over twenty years? You’d help him. Wouldn’t you?
Alan Grainger was looking for another way of saying ‘disgrace’, flipping through his mental thesaurus as he crossed Charing Cross Road, heading north and west from Covent Garden. He had the little Moleskine in his inside pocket, where he had already jotted down a few lines – insults mainly – while he ate the meal.
Affordable housing, better traffic management, more late-night venues, there are many things that London badly needs right now. What it expressly doesn’t need is another ‘pop-up’ knocking out brioche-bunned designer burgers at twelve quid a throw.
Playing around with this, his main contender for the opening sentence, he cut up that little alleyway into Chinatown, the cold, late-November air suddenly full of the smell of roast duck. His plan for the rest of the afternoon was to find a quiet corner in Soho House or the Groucho and drink a pot of coffee to clear the two-beer fug out of his head while he finished writing his review. Then he’d get the train home around four, missing the worst of the rush hour. He shifted a little on his feet to try and dislodge a lurking discomfort somewhere in his bowels. Constipation. An occupational hazard.
‘Ignominy’! That was it.
He stopped on the corner of Gerrard Street and took the notebook from the warm folds of his thick winter coat, his fingers bony in the chill air.
The accent Scottish, like his own.
It was one of those very cold, very bright early-winter days, the sky above London a hard, deep blue, the chimney pots and TV antennae cartoon-contrasted against it. ‘The initial ignominy ...’ he scribbled, crossing out ‘disgrace’.
Close by, floor level.
‘Of the thirty-five-minute wait for a table ...’ The new thing – no reservations. In his late forties, this trend felt to Alan like one of the biggest backward steps mankind could make.
‘Compounded by the –’
Hang on now – why did this guy know his name?
He looked up. Or rather, down. The tramp was sitting on the pavement, his back to the wall of the cinema that formed one half of an alleyway that led into Soho proper. He was looking at Alan with intent, almost with amusement. He was eating, the tramp. Some kind of tinfoil-wrapped disgrace, some ignominy of falafel or kebab. Alan approached slowly, the notebook going into his side pocket, his right hand reflexively going into his right trouser pocket for his change.
Well, it wasn’t so unusual really. Alan’s photograph appeared regularly in the papers, passport-sized every week next to his column, even bigger next to the occasional feature or interview. He was on TV and radio now and again. Maybe this guy, hunkering down in an underpass, or on some park bench night after night, had cause to read a restaurant review or two before succumbing to a few hours of Super Lager-induced oblivion. Closing the few yards between them he had time to notice that the man appeared to be about his own age. There the similarities ended, however. The tramp wore filthy jeans, burnt-out off-brand trainers, and was appar- ently baked, sealed, into some kind of parka, his face framed by stringy long hair. (Long and stringy but without, Alan was dismayed to note, any of the grey that had begun to streak through his own hair.) Alan formed a kind of half-smile, a benevolent ‘good-luck’ expression, as his fist went into his pocket and came out with a mix of warm coins.
‘How’ve ye been?’ The guy said this in a casual, upbeat tone, as though they were friends who had just seen each other last week.Yes, Scottish, and about his age. There was probably a conversation about how great Scotland was looming here. How much they both missed it, both of them having made a point of being here in London.
‘Fine, fine . . .’ Alan said. He was looking for somewhere to drop the coins, for the guy’s cap or blanket, or the modern begging bowl – the tattered beaker from Subway, Burger King or KFC. It felt churlish to ask after the wellbeing of his interlocutor, who was, after all, lying in an alleyway, begging. Except Alan couldn’t see any cash receptacle. He stood there with his coin-filled hand awkwardly frozen in mid-air. Cold air. Their eyes met.
‘I thought you’d recognised me.’
This was the tramp speaking, not Alan.
‘I don’t . . .’ Alan began but didn’t finish. Because their eyes were locked on each other now, Alan standing over the man, half bent with his fistful of smash. He didn’t finish because the tramp’s face was coming into focus, a certain glitter in the eyes, the smile lines at the corners of the mouth, the slightly crooked front teeth, but worn down to stumps, brown and rotted since he’d last seen them. Since he’d . . .
‘Craig?’ Alan said, the entire word coming out of his mouth like the squiggle of a question mark.
‘Long time, pal.’
Several emotions hit him at once. Shock, obviously. Pity, the kind of deep, reflexive pity for another creature’s suffering. And, most obviously, joy. Joy that, once in a while, the universe was capable of producing such a stark symbol of your own success, of how far you’d come, of how much you’d made of the hand you’d been dealt, while others had...
For lying there on the cold W1 pavement was one of his oldest friends. A man who, when they’d been boys, had been as close to him as it was possible to be. A man who he had not seen in the flesh in nearly twenty-five years.
And now he had to ask it, churlish or not.
‘How . . . how’ve you been?’
‘Ach,’ Craig Carmichael said, spreading a gloved hand to indicate himself, his patch, the thin piece of cardboard that served as his house, ‘ye see it aw.’
‘Jesus, Craig. Jesus fucking Christ.’
‘Where are ye off tae?’ Craig took a bite of his tinfoil-tubed snack as he asked this. He was carrying on the conversation, well, conversationally, as though this were just another day, as though they had bumped into each other fully pinstriped at Terminal 5, two old school friends happening to intersect at an international hub of travel. Alan? Alan was having trouble staying upright. What should he do? Sit down beside him to show ‘hey, we’re no different’ or remain standing?
‘I . . .’ Alan struggled. ‘I’m just doing a bit of work.’
‘I . . . yeah.’
There was a pause. Wind gusted along the alley, seeking release. What else was there to say?
‘Listen.’ Alan looked at his watch. ‘Do... do you fancy a quick drink?’
Later, much later, Alan would have cause to wonder about how differently things would have gone if this sentence had not escaped his lips. The tiny interstices of life, moments where we think nothing much is happening, but something always is.
Obviously, given Craig’s current look, many places were out (though Alan reckoned he could probably have passed him off as a challenging British artist at the Groucho), so the Coach and Horses on Greek Street it was. They crammed around one of the small tables at the end of the bar, near the toilets, Alan with a half lager and Craig with a pint.
Later, much later, Alan would have cause to wonder about how differently things would have gone if this sentence had not escaped his lips
‘Cheers,’ Alan said.
‘Aye, cheers,’ Craig responded as their glasses touched. Cheers. Really? It sounded mockingly inappropriate to Alan as he sipped his drink and took Craig in properly. He seemed to be wearing many layers of clothing. The soles flapped off his trainers. His bundle (sleeping bag, backpack, carrier bag) was shoved under the stool next to him.
It had taken him a fair while to roll all of this up, while Alan stood there, smiling benignly, unsure of the social etiquette of the situation. (Offer to help? Or not. He went with not.) And yet Craig didn’t look so filthy that the pub would have refused him entry. He wore a thick beard and his hair was a mess, seeming to go in five different directions at once, but it did look like it had been washed in recent memory. In truth, had he been twenty years younger, he could just about have earned a place on one of the old ‘hipster or tramp?’ tumblrs. Also, maddeningly, Craig was still thin. Maddeningly, but not inexplicably. Alan guessed one of the very few benefits of vagrant life was guaranteed calorie control. They set their glasses down and it was finally time to ask it. There was no way around it.
‘Craig, Jesus, what happened to you?’
Craig laughed. It was as if he had been expecting just this question for the last ten minutes. ‘Ah fuck, long story. When did I last see you?’
‘Oh God . . .’ Alan pretended to think.
In truth he knew exactly when they’d last seen each other. He could picture the moment with total clarity right now: Craig, still dripping with sweat, wearing a fresh T-shirt he’d taken from the merchandise stall, a tumbler of white wine halfway to his lips as he waved goodbye from across the packed dressing room while Alan and the boys made their way out of the door at two o’clock in the morning.
‘See ye!’ he’d shouted. It had been at the Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow University, in the spring of 1993. Craig’s band, the Rakes, just back from America, had played the opening night of their British tour there. It had been just before Alan moved down to London. There had been him and Charlie and Donald, the guys he shared the flat with on Huntley Gardens, just off Byres Road. Charlie, Donald, Craig and Alan had all gone to Glasgow Uni together. Craig had dropped out in second year, when his band had really started to take off, and now here he was, one of their own, headlining the QM, where the four of them had watched so many gigs together, speeding on the balcony, leaping in the mosh pit. Yes, Alan knew exactly when. So why pretend to think? Because you don’t want him to know you’ve often thought about him.
‘Ah . . . maybe in Glasgow? That time you played the QM?’
‘Aye, aye. Maybe...’ Craig said, rubbing his beard.
‘I mean, I’ve tried to find you here and there. The usual, Facebook and stuff,’ Alan said.
‘Don’t really do any of that,’ Craig said. No shit? Alan thought, looking at Craig’s tattered belongings below the stool.
‘Obviously I heard a few stories a while back, in the press and whatnot.’
Alan remembered the bits of information in the late nineties, back when he still occasionally read Q, or the NME.
‘Heroin ... rehab ... Los Angeles ... dropped by their record company ...’ They had been comforting stories at the time, when Alan had still been toiling for pennies at Time Out. For a while prior to this, Craig’s success had seemed imminent, huge and unavoidable.
Craig took a big gulp of lager. ‘“Daybreak” was a hit in America, remember? Not a smash-hit kinda hit, but big enough. We then pretty much moved the band to LA in 1994. Just touring all the time. The album started selling off the back of all this, close to a million copies. We started getting proper royalty cheques in, you know? Not just five and ten grand kinda thing, but two and three hundred thousand dollars stuff. This was twenty years ago, mind. So, ye can imagine, you knew Davy and Tam, we all went a bit mental. Then, usual story, we’re all living like guys who earn a quarter of a million dollars a year and then the next album comes out and it’s “who the fuck are you?”. We sell ninety thousand. Went from nine hundred thousand to ninety overnight! No mean feat that, losing ninety per cent of your fan base from one record to the next. Anyway, we’re used to living like kings, and then, the following year, your income gets cut to fuck all, but did we start reining it all in? Did we fuck. Advances from the label, trying to write another hit, no one had paid their tax bill, it was all just the usual, y’know, like every cunt before us and every cunt after us. So, about ’99 I’m fucked, skint, end up working in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, trying to get another band together, still battering the nose up, bit of smack here and there. That went on for a few years, then, ach, there were a couple of women, things didnae work out. I moved back to Scotland about, what, don’t know, 2005 or 2006? Something like that. Ma maw died –’ Alan interjected the obligatory ‘I’m sorry’, but Craig waved it off – ‘and I got a wee bit of money, kept me going for a few years, but I soon got through it, and the drinking was bad by this point. I came down here to try and get out the circle I was in back in Ardgirvan, bad crowd, ye know? Smack. Ranta Campbell and they kinda boys? I was staying with a girl I knew in Tottenham. She chucked me out after a few months. I remember, the first night I slept rough – a lot of folk can always remember this – I had about thirty quid in my pocket. It was about enough for a hostel for the night or I could have got a single on the coach back to Glasgow and done what? Fuck knows. It was September, no that cold, so I walked up to the park and got in ma sleeping bag under a bush – I was steaming of course – and then next thing I knew I woke up about seven in the morning. I’d got through the night, ye know? It wisnae that bad. So you just, ye know, ye find out you can do it. I went and sat near a cashpoint and by lunchtime I had about four quid. Enough for a sandwich and a couple o cans. That... that was about five years ago. And here we are.’ Craig drained his glass.
Alan shook his head and looked at the clock behind the bar. It had taken just over three minutes for Craig to recap the last twenty-four years of his life.
‘Ach, fuck it,’ Craig said. ‘Ye win some, ye lose some. It wisnae all bad. Had some good times along the way.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Alan said.
As the words came out of his mouth he realised that he meant them. He had wished ill on Craig many times when they were younger. He had envied his looks, his talent, his musicianship, his way with women, his confidence, his popularity. The young Alan Grainger had very much wanted to be Craig Carmichael. But now, today, as they both approached fifty and the results were in, he was very, very glad to be Alan Grainger.
‘Ye know, I’ve seen ye around a few times,’ Craig said.
‘Ach, Dean Street, coming in and out of the Groucho and the like. It’s a good touch there sometimes. Some steaming rich bastard handing ye a twenty-pound note, stuff like that.’ Alan often noticed, and funded, the bums around the doorway to the Groucho. But you didn’t really notice them, did you? You averted your gaze.
‘Why didn’t you say hello?’ Alan asked.
‘Come tae fuck, Alan,’ Craig said. ‘Ye were with people. What was I going tae say? “A’right, Al? Mind me? Craig Carmichael fae Ardgirvan? We went tae Ravenscroft Academy together? Ye got a couple o quid ye can spare us?”’
‘Why did you decide to say hello today?’
Craig shrugged. ‘Ye were on yer own.Ye stopped near me tae write in yer daft wee notebook.’ Alan smiled. But something about the quick slap of that ‘daft’, about the fact that, cracked and weathered though the skin around them was, Craig’s blue eyes could still cut through him ... unsettled Alan. Made him feel sixteen again, like the intervening years had not leavened all the justice that they should have.
‘Anyway,’ Craig said. ‘Ma shout. What are ye having?’
‘Craig, honestly, let me –’
‘Naw. Ma round. I can get it.’
‘I ken, but –’
‘Fuck sake, Alan.’
‘Sorry, aye. If you’re sure, can ye get us a half of... ah fuck it. Get us a pint.’
As Alan watched Craig fight his way in at the bar, getting a couple of odd looks from some of the afternoon drinkers, but no trouble getting served (the Coach and Horses had surely seen a lot worse), he thought to himself, Aye? Ye? Ken?
When had he last talked like this? Katie would be wondering what had happened to him when he got home tonight.