‘See him? See that guy over there? Fucker’s staring at me - the guy drinking red wine at the table by the window. See him?’
‘Sit down, Wayne. No-one’s staring at you. Look at the girl he’s with. Why would he look at you?’
‘See that! Fucker looks this way then starts smirking and laughing with his mates; now they’re all laughing.’
‘Sit down and finish your drink. No-one’s looking at you.’
Wayne sits down for a minute but his eyes slip back to the group by the window. The landlord glances at me. I know what he’s telling me. Get him under control or get him out of here. Through the mirrors behind the optics and the glass shelves I watch the scene as if I’m outside looking in - which is pretty much where I want to be right now.
For a moment Wayne is calm and I think maybe we’re okay but then up he chirps again.
‘He’s wearing a fucking waistcoat.’
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
Wayne is loud now and people are staring at us. A couple move towards the end of the bar, near the door, just in case. Two young guys watch and grin. Sitting alone, a familiar-looking, heavy guy with tattoos and stubble glances up from his Daily Mail. He has the Neanderthal look of a man whose lips move as he reads, not a man you’d want to sit too close to.
The barman leans over and speaks. ‘Get him out of here,’ he mutters.
Easier said than done; Wayne is a limpet.
‘Come on, Wayne, let’s get out of here, get a game of snooker maybe, or a Chinese?’
‘He’s wearing a fucking waistcoat, and he thinks he can laugh at me.’
‘It’s a waistcoat not a City top, and he’s not laughing.’
Now he stands up, swaying a little, holding the edge of the bar.
‘You,’ he yells, ‘fucker in the waistcoat, are you a City supporter?’
He lurches aggressively forwards towards the table. The pretty girl looks anxious, the guy in the waistcoat bewildered and, unsurprisingly, embarrassed. The rest of the party inch back, the men gathering space to move if they need to. The women are ready to shout abuse or leave. Everyone is staring.
‘Are you looking at me?’
The guy looks at his friends, maybe for reassurance.
‘I am now,’ he says, with a nervous, half laugh.
I wince. That was a mistake. Humour goes right over Wayne when he’s in this mood, stratospheric. His eyes are heavy and bleary and he’s swaying to and fro but he’s fixed the waistcoat with a stare and he won’t let go.
‘Why the fuck,’ he grunts, ‘are you wearing a waistcoat?’ He snorts a strangled laugh and looks around the bar for support. There is none. Mostly people turn away, find something they urgently need to talk about, and avoid eye contact.
The door closes behind the nervous couple. Others are reaching for their coats.
‘Come on, Wayne.’ I drag at his arm but it’s like trying to weigh an anchor. He pulls away and stumbles against the table and a drink slops onto the pretty girl. She screams and the guy clambers to his feet, defensive mode, protecting what’s his, alpha male; which is pretty much what Wayne wants.
Nothing ever goes well from here.
Wayne assumes an aggressive–defensive stance.
‘Guy in the waistcoat thinks he’s tough,’ he slurs and snorts.
Trouble is that anyone is a tough-guy compared to Wayne in this condition. Anyone who can stand upright and focus for long enough to throw a punch is a tough-guy. This one is tall and athletic and, to make matters worse, the landlord has thrown a towel on the bar and is coming over. He looks seriously pissed. Anyone who isn’t Wayne can see how this will end.
Another trouble with Wayne is he doesn’t know when to stay down. No matter how many times he gets hit he always stands up again. He’s had a lot of practice, even back in primary school when I first met him. Nobody could ever really beat him because he always came back, until his opponents got bored and walked away.
‘They’re too scared to fight me,’ he would crow, eyes bruised, lips cut and swollen. ‘They can’t beat me,’ which was true, after a fashion.
Twenty minutes later, Wayne and I are limping along the town street towards Wayne’s flat. He’s bleeding from nose and mouth but he’s laughing too. I’m not laughing. That’s another pub from which I’m temporarily barred on account of Wayne. There aren’t many left, and this is a seaside town with a lot of bars.
‘You’re going to get yourself killed,’ I mutter.
‘I beat the fucker though, didn’t I?’ he laughs.
‘Yeah, I could see the look of defeat in his face as he stepped over you on his way out.’
‘He couldn’t keep me down, though,’ he says, which again is true enough.
‘Let’s go to the new Thai restaurant.’ He stops in the middle of the road and grabs my arm as if he’s just had the best idea in the world. ‘Let’s celebrate.’
Now he dances drunkenly in the street, shadow boxing. A car swerves past him and the driver swears. He turns and feigns a punch or two at me. I duck and get an arm round his shoulder so I can direct him towards the pavement.
I talk him out of the Thai restaurant with the offer of a pizza when we get back. He’s compliant now he’s got out of his system whatever it was that was in there.
So, I’ve got my arm round Wayne and I’m half dragging him up the stairs to his flat. The lift is out of order again but that’s no surprise. The surprise is when it’s working. I don’t use it even then. That lift is either broken or about to break, and about to break is worse.
The flat is on the second floor, which is not so bad unless you’re lumbering up there with a drunk on your shoulder. He stops to urinate. I glance down the concrete stairs and then up ahead. This might not be a select neighbourhood but people still don’t want you urinating on the stairs.
They’ve got standards.
Well, some of them have.
Wayne’s flat is surprisingly tidy. I can never make that out. There are no clothes scattered on the floor and there’s no unwashed crockery in the sink. The carpet is clean and recently vacuumed and the furniture, albeit sparse, is spotless. How come an aggressive binge drunk like Wayne has the energy or the commitment to clean and tidy? I just don’t get it. And there are books, lots of them. I wonder when that started. Then I remember it was way back, when Tina Oldfield first entered our lives.
It’s the same with his work. I don’t think Wayne has missed a day in four years. It’s nothing special, just a factory job, food processing, but he started off part time then they took him on full time, quite an achievement at times of austerity when the best you can hope for is a sixteen-hour contract.
Politicians are bastards. Conservative politicians are the biggest bastards of all.
I drop him on the sofa and go through to make coffee. The cups are on a rack, and they gleam. I’m fussy when it comes to cups. There are lots of places where I’d rather die of thirst that use the crockery but not at Wayne’s. The worktop is wiped clean and there are no teaspoons lying there, and there are no coffee granules in the sugar.
By the time I get back he’s sitting watching rugby on Sky Sports, as if nothing had happened. Congealed blood on his nose and lips, swollen eye, bruising, and he’s watching the rugby. And that’s how we spend the rest of the evening, watching rugby like two normal guys after a night out.
This is how it is, about once every couple of months. I wish I could see it coming but I can’t. There are no tell-tale signs, at least not until the fifth pint when something like a black cloud descends. Then I know alright. But by then it’s too late.
I wonder why Wayne and I are friends. I’m always wondering that. It’s not as if we have much in common except a long history and a death, though I suppose a death is a strong sort of bond when you think about it, especially a death like that.
Still, our friendship does go way back, like the beginning of this story.