I reverse my dark blue Audi A4 into the lone parking place at the side of the road, wedging the vehicle tightly between a black Volvo V70 Estate and a silver Toyota Rav4. I switch off the engine, withdraw the large set of keys from the ignition, and stuff them into one of my trouser pockets. Picking up the dog-eared London A-Z from the passenger seat, I peel off the equally tattered post-it note from one of the map’s inner pages, and roll it into a tight ball between finger and thumb. Toying with the screwed up piece of paper in my hand, I lean into the passenger footwell, pull open the glove compartment, and toss in the guide book.
I look out through the passenger window; a row of sodium street lights cast spotlights of yellow haze across a tree-lined park. In the distance I discern a playground, the silhouettes of a slide and swings standing stark amidst the sepia backdrop. I instinctively turn to the rear of the car, registering the child seat strapped firmly in place by one of the seatbelts. I spy a small teddy lying on the floor, at the foot of the seat, which I retrieve through the gap between the front armrests. The bear stares up at me, expressionless; its matted fur, one cracked eye and a semi-dismembered ear instilling a notion that it has seen better days. I smile at its pathetic appearance and toss it into my three year old daughter’s child restraint.
A cold wind bites at my freshly shaven face as I step out into the night and meander to the back of the car. Focusing my attention on a drain by the kerb, half concealed by autumnal windfall, I deftly flick the rolled
up post-it note towards the opening, spinning it as it leaves my fingers. It spirals through the air, and passes through the wrought iron grill cleanly. In my head, I hear a crowd roar in celebration. I smile to myself once more; maybe this isn’t going to be such a torturous evening after all. Opening the boot, I take up my long, black overcoat and slip it over my shoulders. Wrapping my dark burgundy scarf about my neck for added warmth, I pick up the twelve pack of continental lager, before slamming the boot closed. Extracting the keys from my pocket, I press the lock button on the car’s fob, causing the vehicle to emit a sound akin to a seal pup searching for its mother. Simultaneously, the headlights flash twice, piercing the heavy mist that is starting to fall.
Crossing the road to the pavement opposite, I note the number of the house directly in front of my car and turn to my right, naturally assuming that properties are numbered from left to right on this side of the street. Passing two driveways before sighting another number, my instinct is vindicated, and once again I sense an air of optimism over this evening’s proceedings. Continuing down the street of this very affluent south London suburb, row upon row of detached Victorian dwellings pass before me, until I reach my destination; number 62. The property is set back from the road, a four foot walled front garden lies before the imposing building, and there are two entry points; a large pair of solid oak gates to a driveway, and a much smaller matching gate to a path that leads to the front door.
Turning the handle on the smaller wooden gate, I enter and amble slowly up the path towards a brightly lit porch, which guides my way. The path divides a large, freshly mowed lawn, the borders of which are lined with flourishing bushes of various descriptions. The house is detached, comprising three storeys, with double bay windows either side of the grand entrance. There are little signs of life; the two front rooms are bathed in pitch darkness, and although a soft glow emanates from beyond the porch, I’m not convinced I have the correct address. As I make my way towards the house, I’m beginning to rue discarding my host’s details so quickly. The faint sound of music reaches my ears, just as I toy with the idea of abandoning this foray and retreating to my car. I discern movement behind the main front door, which stands some ten feet beyond the porch entrance. Ever conscious of my habit to be indecisive at the best of times, I reach out and press the doorbell, before hesitation gets the better of me. There is no immediate sound in response to my action, no ring, ding-dong or buzz; nothing to confirm that my presence has been registered. I resist the urge to press the bell again, preferring instead to wait and see what happens; an air of letting fate take its toll. Suddenly, there is a resonance of commotion from inside the building. An inner door slams shut, and the sound of footsteps scampering up a flight of stairs fills the hallway. I ring the bell again, all sense of nervous trepidation fading fast, replaced by impatience.
It’s been a good fifteen years since graduating from university, and through various social media sites, there has always been talk of a reunion. However, for all the reasons associated with living life as a slave to society, no-one has ever managed to organise one; up until now, that is. I’ve kept in touch with a few from my year at Kent, I’ve also friended many on Facebook. I know roughly the whereabouts of my former college colleagues and what most are up to these days; I’m not a complete hermit. However, any desire to stay in more regular contact with my former inmates has become over-shadowed by apathy; a reluctance to look back over my shoulder. I’ve lost all longing to turn back the clock, take a stroll down memory lane or reminisce over fading photographs. It’s not that I don’t go in for nostalgia; rather, I’ve become numbed by it over recent years.
We all bear the guilt of taking things for granted in this world, and we are particularly complacent where family and friends are concerned. Those we see with mundane regularity are often dealt throwaway lines, such as “see you later,” or “catch up soon,” whenever we part company. The day I realised we are but mortals on this planet, I began to ask myself the question “Will I ever see you again?” whenever I bade someone farewell. When talk of this reunion was first mooted, and subsequently confirmed by the masses, I decided the time was right to meet up with everyone again, if for no other reason than to ask them that very question at the end of the evening.
I let out a long sigh, and watch as the condensation from my breath drifts into the air and evaporates on the doubled glazed windows of the porch door. I ring the bell a third time, and then follow this up with a couple of loud thumps on the wooden frame. Within seconds, a dark shadow fills the glass panes of the inner front door, which then suddenly swings open. Standing before me is Beth, my hostess and wife of my former room-mate, Martin. She steps into the porch and draws the front door closed behind her, before prising open the door to the outside world. I sense I’m about to enter some form of decompression chamber.
“Hello you!” Beth beams, enticing me over the threshold with her outstretched arms. “It’s so lovely to see you after all these years.”
I step into the porch with an air of Neil Armstrong about me, and succumb to Beth’s demand for a hug, taking care as I swing the twelve pack of continental lager behind her back.
“It’s lovely to see you too, Beth. I’m sorry I’m late, I had trouble getting away from the office on time.”
“Don’t you worry about that. What’s an hour or two? We should’ve done this ages ago.”
“I know. Not always easy though, eh?”
“No, of course not.”
There’s a pregnant pause in our exchanges, and I seize the opportunity to break free from Beth’s embrace.
“Everyone’s here,” says Beth. “Come on through. Martin is so looking forward to seeing you again.”
I follow Beth into the meticulously pristine hall, replete with a lavishly restored Victorian-tiled floor. Setting down the case of ale on an antique pine dresser, which stands beneath a large ornate mirror, I take off my coat and scarf. I glance at my sombre reflection, and decide I need to lighten up.
“Here, give those to me,” says Beth, offering to relieve me of the garments. “We’re using the dining room as the cloakroom for the evening.”
She takes my coat and scarf, and heads towards the double doors of the dining room at the front of the house. I watch as she deposits my apparel neatly atop a vast assortment of outerwear. In the seconds that pass before her return, I steal the chance to look around. There are two further doors off the hall; one to my immediate right, which I assume to be the mirrored room opposite the dining room at the front of the house, and a second, which is located at the end of the hall, and clearly leads to the rear of the property. A wide, grandiose staircase soars off to the left, carpeted in a thick, royal blue Axminster, and through the strip-pined balustrades, I discern the first floor landing, with several doors branching off in all directions.
I’m suddenly aware of the soft thud of music from behind the door at the rear of the hall, and the symphony of noise caused by several people all talking at once. I stare at the door, then awkwardly at Beth, as if to ask if someone has just flicked a switch and activated party mode.
“Sounds like things are in full swing,” I muse, desperately trying to cover for any look of confusion on my face.
“It sure is. You’ll be surprised when you see everyone again. It seems like only yesterday...”
As if on cue, the door bursts open and out steps a tall, dark-haired man, sporting a rugby shirt, jeans and at least three days of stubble, clutching a can of Fosters.
“Hey!” he cries. “Loo Roll!” He turns back into the doorway and yells through the half open door, “Hey, guess who’s arrived? Loo Roll! Loo Roll! Loo Roll!”
Within seconds the sound of the music in the room is drowned by the universal chant of, “Loo Roll! Loo Roll! Loo Roll!”
I cast a look of semi-bemusement at Beth, who holds her hand to her face to conceal a laugh.
“Your public awaits you, sir!”
“Good to see you again, Kev,” I say to the guy standing by the door, prising the can of lager from his grasp, and downing a large gulp before handing it back. “How you keeping?”
“I’m doing OK,” replies Kev, in a tone that seems to doubt his response. Good to see you too, buddy.” He leans into me and we forge a hug. “Where the fuck does it all go, eh?”
I hear the sound of crumbling tin and realise my former house-mate is crushing his can of lager behind my back, either by accident as we hold each other tightly, or in distraught anger for not knowing the answer to his own question.
“I have no idea, mate. It’s a crazy world out there, too many rats in the race. I can barely keep up at times.”
“You and me too, bro,” Kev sighs, pulling free from my embrace. He kisses me on the cheek. “Fucking great to see you again. I need to pee, be right back. Get your arse in there and let’s get this party started!”
Beth slides an arm through mine as I watch Kev ascend the staircase towards the bathroom, already well on the way to another alcoholic oblivion. The chants of “Loo Roll!” still echo beyond the half open door.
“See what I mean?” she sighs, nodding up the stairs. “It’s just like yesterday. He hasn’t changed a bit. Of course, having a tolerant wife helps.”
I laugh. “I could never envisage Kev with an intolerant wife.”
“That’s very true,” smirks Beth. “But in fact, none of them has changed if the truth be told. Even Martin’s still a kid at heart.”
“Really?” I ask, with intrigue. “I find that hard to believe. I mean, just look at this place.” I wave my arms about the hall, theatrically. “And I’ve heard all about Martin’s rise up the Glaxo ladder…” I pause, not entirely certain where I’m going with my thoughts. “Surely he’s grown out of his… His…”
“Antics?” Beth helps me out. “Oh, he’s matured over the years, for sure. Or rather, he’s slowed down a lot! But he’s still the idiot he used to be… As you’re about to find out.”