I suppose it all starts with the sherry. Philip and Sharon are already ensconced at The Ship by the time we arrive, late as always. We have been stuck on a train so slow it might double as a rudimentary form of time travel, dropping you at your destination years or even months into the future, passing through stations where nobody ought to live. Because we were running so late, Philip asked me if I wanted him to get me a drink in for him. Because I am a knob, I asked for a dry sherry, and because I am thoughtless I didn’t ask Kelly what she wanted to drink.
So the solitary glass sits there on our table, a symbol for plenty of my failings, as we shrug off coats, scarves and gloves and begin the intricate dance of hugs and hellos. The pub is quite something, simultaneously in the middle of nowhere but feeling as if it is at the centre of everything. The room itself is beautiful and has already started to fill up at lunchtime with the sort of people who live a life I spend much of mine envying. You like some people the moment you meet them - I am spending lunch with three such people - but pubs can be like that too. Looking around I already feel a keen tug of regret that this place isn’t my local.
"The driest sherry they had was an amontillado." says Sharon, pronouncing it with a mixture of bafflement and wry amusement. "Anyway, we'll get you a proper drink once you've had a sip and realised you don't like it. I didn't taste it, don't worry, but I did smell it and it's not quite right."
"Oh no, that probably means it's perfect." I say, feeling apologetic about everything in general.
"They didn't even know if they had a sherry, you ponce." laughs Philip. "They had to search for a bottle and even when they found it, it obviously hadn't been opened in a long time. Then they had to work out how to ring it through the till because nobody's had any in so long."
"That's nothing. I have form in that regard. When I was eighteen my brother took me to the local pool hall, in a rough part of town. He asked me what I wanted to drink, and I saw crème de menthe behind the bar and decided I wanted that."
"In a pool hall?" Philip looks incredulous. All I can say is he doesn't know me that well yet.
"Yes, in a pool hall. And the worst thing is, all the sugar in the crème de menthe had encrusted round the neck of the bottle so they practically had to chip it off with a chisel to serve me my manly drink."
This is true, I‘m sorry to say. I can still remember it now as clearly as if it happened yesterday. The dingy surroundings of the bar, the pool tables all around and the more challenging snooker tables - the ones we were too incompetent to even attempt - through a door at the back. I remember the increasingly frenzied attempts by the barman to yank off the screwcap. He looked like the sort of man who wasn’t used to things not responding well to the use of force. I remember my brother saying Are you sure you don't want something else? and desperately hoping I would change my mind and me resolutely pressing on, the most pitiful eighteen year old that ever there was. I remember - the horror - saying in my perfect received pronunciation No, I'll definitely have the crème de menthe. I'm really looking forward to it. I can only just recall all this without wincing.
"Did anyone laugh?" says Sharon. She looks sympathetic, which is reassuring. I don't want to know whether the sympathy is for me or my twenty year old brother, dreading some kind of homophobic beating being doled out on the mean streets of west Reading.
"Everyone laughed. Everyone except me."
We take our seats in the restaurant, a handsome, buzzy room. The menu is just a long list of things I really want to eat, the way all menus should be but so rarely are. Even the vegetarian dishes look like things you might try if the mood struck you. Everything is perfect, from the welcome all the way through to the way the children are strangely muted. I believe it's known as being well behaved, something you don’t see a lot of in the restaurants in my hometown. Later on, one of them will ruin their good record by emitting a bizarre high pitched screech for over a minute like a car in the process of being broken into. That's all in the future though, as are the obnoxious brat called Allegra in the wine shop ("only in Clapham" says Philip sagely at that) and the glorious smoked cannon of lamb, the taste of all that is right about winter time there on my plate, just for me.
We are talking far too much for the staff to take our order. It’s barely a month since I saw them last but it’s difficult to know where to start because we have so many things to discuss - holidays and friends and gossip, projects and plans and visits. Sequels can improve on the original, you see, provided you manage to retain all of the cast and shoot at a suitably beautiful location. We appear to have got this formula right.
"One of my colleagues started following you on Twitter and then unfollowed you recently." says Sharon at one point.
I'm not entirely sure I want to know why this is. Did I mention my writing too much? Did I spill too much bile about somebody famous? Is there a chance they caught me grizzling or bitching non-stop on a bad day? Someone I respect recently called me a "beast" on Twitter, and even that gives an impression of devil-may-care abandon that doesn't fit. It's just spite and bile when all is said and done, spite and bile, and I don‘t even have an excuse. If you confronted me I might say I'm much nicer in real life, I promise. If you knew me in real life we might be friends. But I ask, because I've never been able to stop myself getting bad news. It’s why I open emails from my mother, or look at the last page of a paperback long before I get to the end. I’m just that kind of person.
"I know, why was that?"
"It was bad language." said Sharon. "He read one of your Tweets he didn't like and then said to me I've had a think about it, and I really don't need to read that sort of thing."
Bad language I can take as a reason; if people are shocked by that, I tend to think that’s their problem rather than mine. And when they invent a new word to describe people like Jeremy Clarkson I will use that instead and give the traditional four letter epithets a rest, but nobody has yet. They’re only words, and you can be far more offensive without ever venturing into Anglo-Saxon. Look at the Daily Mail for instance, if you can do that without wanting to bleach your entire head.
"Yes, he said he wasn’t happy with you using the cunt word."
Almost in unison Kelly, Philip and I burst into loud raucous laughter, a choir of merriment in perfect harmony. Every time I think one of us is going to stop they look at the others and the whole thing begins again. Out of the corner of my eye I see a waiter approaching us, no doubt keen to work out if we’ve decided what wine to drink yet, but even he thinks better of it. Sharon looks on nonplussed and eventually it subsides long enough for her to get a straight answer to a straight question.
"What’s so funny?"
It’s Philip that states the obvious for her, ever so nicely.
"Sharon, don’t you mean 'the C word'?"
The penny drops with perfect precision and this time we are all laughing, a bubble of smutty comradeship, living the life I spend much of mine envying. This is what it means to fit, this is what it means to find that spot after so many years. And Sharon will never have to tell a story like this years down the line, to new friends or strangers, and say Everyone laughed but me. I do wonder though, whether she subconsciously knew more than she was letting on. Maybe she was saving the C word to signify something truly reprehensible, something like crème de menthe.
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