Chapter 18 – The Price I Pay
I woke up with what Withnail would refer to as ‘A bastard behind the eyes’ This wasn’t just a hangover. This was a trans-dimensional malfunction which made colours too loud, the slightest sound stank like boiled roadkill and thoughts of catastrophe collided with a loss of basic motor skills. I’d been cut through with an inability to remember the rules of breathing without losing balance. I could feel grit in my bloodstream dragging itself across my forehead. I’d slept folded into a deckchair while a bucket of cement set around me. Or at least that’s the impression I got until I opened my eyes. I could see a strobing row of green digital numbers spinning like a fruit machine that would never pay out. I felt cold sweat and a numb limb. Wait. That wasn’t my limb. I tried to peer into the darkness. a pale yellow glow under a door frame. A pale blue haze about a nautical mile north…
Was that a window behind drapes? And the green numbers. An alarm clock? This wasn’t my room. Maybe the owner of the numb limb also owned the room. Breathe. If you can. I felt sick. I gurgled and rolled over. I puked right there. Into my own boots. At least that had made room in my lungs for some air. Biting cold air. I gasped. Sooner or later I was going to have to address the person to my left. Right now though in this dark pain center moment, all I had was questions and the regret that I knew I would hate the answers whatever they were.
I slipped the arm off my chest and felt around for my clothes. I found my jeans next to my boots. Fucking hell my head felt like it had a cleaver sticking out of it. I tried pulling the jeans up. I could feel the wetness of the puke on one leg. As I breathed deep I could start to make out some more details. A bedroom for sure. The bed was a futon. I stood up. Kind of. It was a three quarter stand. I got my hair caught on something tangled hanging above the bed. A dream catcher? A fucking dream catcher? What have I done? I picked up my socks and my wallet from the floor. I could see my jacket was over a chair near the door. I looked back at the bed. Who had I slept with? How had I got here? I was drinking and listening to records with Vernon before things got fuzzy. I didn’t work last night? I was supposed to be at work. I sat in the chair and pulled my socks on. The sleeping girl in the bed pulled her arm in close to her body. OK. She didn’t look up. Was she a brunette? A redhead? I couldn’t tell in this light. Did we fuck? I put my hand on my junk. It felt as wretched as the rest of me. I couldn’t tell that either. That’s usually what happens when strangers tumble drunkenly into bed with one another isn’t it?
This was a particularly messy room. Piles of clothes and books and junk everywhere. Where is my shirt? Who’s place is this? Is that a blue nude on the wall? What the fucking hell have you done Steve? Why have you done THIS? I was asking myself all the questions of practicality along side all the emotional anguish and remonstrating. If I could gather everything I owned and leave before she woke up is that a good thing or a bad thing? There’s a picture of a couple on the wall here I can make out in the half light. Oh no. What if she has a partner too? Do I still have a partner? Did I punch someone last night? My left arm is killing me. I’m sorry Penny. Does Penny know? Did I meet this person in The Head? Did everyone see? Who is she? I tried the green digits again. They’d calmed down a bit now and were readable. 8:47. AM? That was AM wasn’t it? It had to be. I took my boxer shorts from the floor. They were laying next to a pair of women’s underwear and a pair of knee high boots. Using my undies I tried to clear up my vomit from the floor. I didn’t have enough material to do a proper job but I felt I owed my host an attempt. I stuffed them into my jacket pocket and picked up my boots. Where the hell was my shirt?
I stepped outside the bedroom into the half lit landing of a suburban family home. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the house. I saw a bathroom two doors down. I decided to made a direct lunge into it with my boots in my arms. What had we here? Bath & Shower? Sink. Cupboard. Toothpaste. Water. Daylight. I shut the door behind me. I needed to take stock of myself. That wasn’t puke on my jeans. There was a used condom inside the leg. It was now stuck to my crawling flesh. That answers several questions. I looked into my poor boots. That’s just great. I looked into the mirror. That’s terrible. Everything is terrible. I was grey, blotchy, my hair was tangled and out all over the place. I had smears of lipstick on my chin and chest. I had flecks of vomit on me too. I had to clean up. Quietly.
When I was done I still looked horrendous, I still felt horrendous. At least my boots were rescued enough for me to pull them on. So here I stood. Shirtless in a strangers bathroom wracked with guilt, fear and grain is not a good look. Never the less I started planning my escape. I’d open the bedroom door to get my jacket (And the terrible secret in their pocket). I’d use the light let into the room to try to find my shirt. I’d either wake the sleeping girl or not. Fifty fifty odds were the best I could hope for right now. If she slept on I’d slink off like a dirty rat. If she woke up, well, I’d get some answers at least. Who she was. How we met. What we’d done. I flushed the toilet. It was deafening. On tip toes I headed back to the bedroom. As I opened the door I’d become hyper aware of each floorboard creak and each squeaky hinge. I could see her in the bed still. I could see my jacket. There was no sign of my shirt anywhere. I scanned the room. Fuck it. I’ve got too many T-Shirt’s anyway. I’ll dip without it. I took my jacket off the chair. She stirred in the bed. I tiptoed out of the room pulling the door closed behind me.
On the way down the stairs to the front door I zipped my jacket up over my shirtless torso. I turned the latch and stepped out into the rain. It was hammering down. I had to work out what part of town I was in. Clueless regarding how far I had to go to get home. I closed the strangers front door behind me. I began the long walk into the rain. At the end of her street I looked down the next road. Left or right? I had no idea where I was. I could feel the clammy dampness in my Docs seeping through to my socks. Each drop of rain felt like an icicle fired from a nail gun into my brain. I’m such an idiot.
I arrived back at Cemetery Road what felt like 3 hours later. I let myself in and flopped onto the sofa. That was my latest mistake. I lay there smelling the puke on my boots and the damp in my hair for a good 45 minutes. Then the phone rang. It was a louder and more aggressive ring than I’d heard it do before. The phone was in the front room by the front door. It seemed angry about everything right now even before I answered it. Crawling onto the floor I made my way on my hands and knees to the source of this noise. As I picked it up I knew I was about to engage in a part of my life I’d left in tatters last night. “Hello?” I could hear the pub noise before I heard Sarah speak. “Steve. Where the hell are you?” I considered the fact that Sarah had called me at my home for a second. “Never mind. I know where you are. I guess what I’m asking is, Steve, why aren’t you here? Working for me. Right now. As scheduled. I’d also like to know why you didn’t work last night? Why you took a swing at Vernon? Why you stuck your tongue down a random punters throat last night and I’d like to know why the hell you’re behaving like such a fucking prick? Do you have any answers to any of those questions Steve? Do you?” I rolled onto my back. “Umm. I could guess the Vernon one but the rest… I’m just not sure what you’re talking about.” I heard Sarah half laugh. It was an incredulous noise. “Get your shit together Steve.” I laid there with the receiver on my chest. Sarah ranted a little but I couldn’t make out all the words. I looked up at the empty light bulb socket in our front room. I turned my head to see the lamps and drapes and home comforts Penny had put in all over the place. This was all dead now. I looked back at that empty socket. “There’s no light Sarah” I said out loud. “Just be here at six thirty” I heard the line go dead. Still I laid there. What time was it now?
By two pm I was in a sweltering bath. By three I was out of the bath and drinking orange juice from the carton in the kitchen wearing one of Penny’s bathrobes. At five I was dressed in my own clobber rinsing my docs out in the sink. I stuffed them with newspaper before I left them at the back door to dry out. I put on a pair of trainers to head to work at six then headed out the door in an old donkey jacket. In the pocket was my walk-man with a pair of headphones. As I headed into town I listened as Penny’s Happy Birthday Caveman mix-tape swerved from Liz Phair singing Supernova “You walk in clouds of glitter and the sun reflects your eyes, and every time the wind blows, I can smell you in the sky” to The Slingbacks playing All Pop No Star “And when the shaking stopped you could be all pop, no star, spinning in your bed like a suicide in my head” and then it changed tact with Billy Bragg and The Price I Pay. “My friend said she could see no way ahead and I was probably better off without you, she said to face up to the fact that you weren’t coming back and she could make me happy like you used to” then finally Shed 7 with She Left Me On Friday. She hadn’t really left me though had she? Had she? I’d left her. I’d lied. I’d cheated. I’d fucked it all up.
I stood in the vast now empty car park outside The Head. I just stared at the outside of the pub like it was a dolls house. This place of mirth and music. The warm glow through the windows from the lights inside. I’d made a home here. I’d fallen in love here. And last night I had ruined it all. “There’s something inside that hurts my foolish pride, to visit the places we used to go together, not a day goes by that I don’t sit and wonder why your feelings for me didn’t last forever, girl I love you so much that sometimes it’s such I’d walk a mile with a stone in my shoe and that’s the price I pay for loving you the way that I do”
I couldn’t take a step closer. I looked at it like it was a Christmas decoration not a real place. Inside I knew exactly what would be happening. Dan The Man would be joking around while pulling pints. Dan The Van would be finding new and disgusting ways of describing his last visit to the cubicles. Trace would be booking tonight’s band in. Daisy and The Rain would be chatting with the punters or dancing to the music. I’d enter the building to become the villain of the piece. I never wanted that. As I stood there staring I thought about keeping walking. Go to the train station or the dual carriage way. Hop over a barrier or stick out my thumb. Or lay down on the tracks. Step into traffic. A bleak dark mood rising over my world painted everything black. What is a villain to do? As I stood staring I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked around to see Zippy smiling at me. “You OK Big Fella?” I looked at the ground “Not really Zippy, no.” He put his arm around me. “Come inside, get a cup of coffee. Let’s see if that helps.” I tried to stay rooted to the spot but I was disarmed by the idea that I still had a friend in this world.
Zippy walked me to the doors. He even held them open for me. The sound of Tom Waits poured out singing Mr Siegal. Zippy announced my arrival like a herald “I’ve got a lost soldier here.” I stepped inside and Dan The Man looked pleased to see me “You OK Bud?” Daisy swished across the room. She hugged me hard. “We were so worried about you.” I looked to Dan. “You were?” He nodded. Vernon was in the bar. He approached with a mock caution, ducking and weaving imagined hay-makers. “Young Blood. It’s good to see you upright. How’s the head?” I was hugging Daisy back, looking straight over her head. “Like a sack of spanners”. “Glad you’re OK. Sorry I went so hard on you last night. I hope we’re OK.” I nodded. “We’re fine Vernon. I think I owe you the apology.” He shook my hand. “Not at all”
I turned to Zippy and thanked him. He shook his head. “You’ve been there for me. About time I was there for you. Daisy can you get Steve and I a pot of coffee?” She let go of me then headed off behind the bar. “Dan, is Sarah here? I should go and see if I’ve still got a job.” Sarah came into the room with the cafetiere. “Yes you’ve still got a job. You’ve got a hell of a tab to work off for one thing.” I looked at her thankfully. “Sarah. I’m so sorry.” She shrugged as poured me a cup of Joe. “I’m surprised you remember anything” I took a sip. “To be honest, I don’t. I know I fucked up big time. I’m not sure of the specifics though.” She shook her head. “Well, Vernon got the ball rolling. Dan and Daisy were here for the main event. Then we lost sight of you on the radar about ten thirty. Umm, after you got hugely incoherent and overly friendly with that bird from Woolworths.” She looked over her nonexistent glasses for the last sentence of that recap. “Oh shit.” I put my head in my hands. “The last thing you said to me before you left was ‘pray for me Daisy’ as you headed out the door with her.” My young friend added. “I don’t know what got into me”. Vernon began to defend my actions. “Being dumped can affect people in a number of ways. Being dumped over the phone from America by your rock star girlfriend is going to send any bloke off the deep end” I looked up at him. “What? Being dumped?” Daisy stepped forward again “You don’t remember?” Trace looked over suspiciously “That’s handy. Pull your self together Steveo we’ve got a support band on it twenty minutes.” She was clearly not as forgiving as the rest of the team on this one. “Right you are Trace.” I necked my coffee. It burbled with the darkness in my guts almost instantly. “Penny and I broke up?” Dan nodded. “You did. You were quite upset.” Of course I was. I racked my brain. Did I remember any of this? “You called her a sell out or something. She called you a dick.” That struck a chord. “Selling out for pennies. Cheap change.” I remember saying that. “Stay on the road forever. I’m sick of waiting. Go fuck your drummer.” What a complete bastard I’d been. Why did I say all that? Vernon shifted awkwardly. “You seemed to have the impression she’d fucked the new drummer.” I stopped the conversation. “Sister Pain have got a new drummer?” Everyone around me shook their heads. “We’re not doing this again.” said Sarah. They all went back to work. Dan stood by me while I checked with Zippy. “What happened to Old Man Myles?” Zip rolled a thin cigarette. “He got another gig. Touring with Percy. The girls got this metal dude in a couple of weeks back. Looks like a wrestler.” I had a flashback to last night. I’d asked Penny about it on the phone. Did she say they were dating? Did I imagine it? I was so confused. “Rick Stick or something” said Zippy. Aww shit, that’s right. Rikki Stixx. I felt the gravity in the room change. I felt woozy again. I was getting flashbacks all over. I did swing for Vernon. I did drink a lot of strong booze. I did play Exile on Main St really loud. There was an attempt to kiss someone. A telling off from Sarah. A girl with long red hair in knee high boots. A bottle of whiskey and a drunken fumble in the car park. It was all awful.
During this blitzkrieg of shattered recollections Sarah pulled on my hand. She led me into the kitchen. “Steve. I know you’re missing Penny. I know you’re upset about the situation with Mr Knickerbocker. I know you blame yourself for what happened to Arthur. I get all of that, but you have to keep it together. I came to get you that night so you could be seen. Here, surrounded by people. Where you always are. If you start going all wobbly and emotional and random and shouty… Well Vernon and Mr Knickerbocker are going to think you’re a liability. Right now they like you. Scratch that. Right now Mr Knickerbocker likes you. Vernon has always liked you. You need to keep your nose clean.” I could feel a wisecrack sneaking up on me regarding those guys and nasal pollutants but Sarah could see it forming in the back of my mind and gave me a ‘don’t you dare’ stare. “Right now the only people who know you and that piece of shit had a round two are Me and the people who were there. Penny doesn’t need to know. And Mr Knickerbocker needs to understand you feel that way. Do you understand?”
I felt a new weight push down on my chest. It was like swallowing a black cloud. She was right. After Dan and I called in Vernon and Knickerbocker we’d changed our roles in the world. We were trading souls with the underworld. I’d offloaded a near miss into the lap of a true villain in an exchange where I didn’t first state my terms. Sarah had literally driven in like a fairy Godmother and whisked me away. Vernon had negotiated my release and… That was it. Mr Knickerbocker knew what I did. I knew the last time I saw Arthur Loafer he was technically still alive. The next time I heard about him he was dead. Dan The Van acted like it never happened. As far as I could tell not another soul was aware it ever did. Penny didn’t need that. She didn’t need dragging into it. She was away. The other side of the world. The other side of the glass. The Miles Away Girl.
The best thing I could do was grant her that clean getaway. If you love ’em, let ’em go.