It’s my birthday. Four in the morning and I’m in the back of a cab coming back from a night out in town with Trev. He’s in the front, telling the driver about this 18-year-old he’s been seeing. You’d think an 18-year-old would be a sort of Holy Grail to a 51-year-old, but no. Far from it. She’s a nice-looking maid, he says, but talks a load of crap. Drives him nuts. The taxi driver nods sympathetically, the tart. He can well believe it, he says, youngsters being what they are these days.
I worked on a men’s long-stay ward of a mental hospital in the early Eighties. Chronic schizophrenics who’d been stuck in there 20, 30, 40 years. Albert Marples. Reg Ford. The hospital mascots. Institutionalised institutions. Completely gone, they were. Animal noises. And the psychiatrists used to have a nice term for their state of mind. Bert and Reg had reached their ‘plateau’, they said.
Well, we’ve been drinking since yesterday lunchtime, and I’ve reached mine. I’ve achieved it, moreover, without going through my usual queasy stage, or my usual falling-over stage, and I’ve arrived unscathed at that blessed stage of inner peace and gnomic clarity — Jack London’s ‘white logic’, perhaps — in which the pointlessness of life and love and struggle are accepted with perfect equanimity. We’d been to Plebs, and when that closed we went on to the Bunch of Grapes, and when that closed we went round to someone’s flat where a lot of serious-faced people were sitting round taking themselves and each other very seriously, so that was no good, and then we must have taken a cab. And nothing had happened all evening. Which is surprising, because whenever Trev goes in the Grapes, particularly, something always happens.
It’s like an old gunslinger coming to town and issuing a challenge to the rising stars. The last time he went, he put this bloke on the pavement four times, but the fella kept getting up and coming at him again and Trev had no alternative but to run away. Drugs, said Trev, afterwards. You can’t fight anyone on drugs, bud. They’ve got abnormal strength and don’t feel pain.
But this time round there were no takers, on drugs or not. At one point in the Grapes I’d wondered where he’d got to, and found him in an alcove threatening about half a dozen young fellas. The music was too loud to make verbal threats, so he was shaking his fist under the nose of each in turn and smiling and nodding encouragement at them. Actually he was pleading rather than threatening. The lads looked questioningly at one another, as if to say, is this a joke or what?
So he returned to the dance floor and danced, in his way, like a trained bear in a badly run circus. I hopped about, too, pretending I still had it in me, but all I got for my efforts, I noticed, were disgusted or horrified glances, especially from the ladies. A gaggle of very drunk women tumbled on to the dance floor, and one of them stole my glasses and tried them on, and they all screamed with laughter. Then they passed my glasses around and everyone tried them on. The last one to try them on returned them to me solicitously, like a kind-hearted nurse with an exaggerated respect for the elderly.
So now we’re going home in the cab and Trev’s telling the driver about this 18-year-old. The radio is on and the pips go for the top of the hour and it’s the news. There is a news item about a fox getting into a house in Lewisham and biting a child’s finger off. The driver turns the volume up and they both lean in and listen. A man working for an animal welfare organisation gives his view on the matter. The problem, he says, is that urban foxes need to be educated. That’s what he says. Those are his exact words. Educated. Trev and the driver laugh uproariously at this. And as they subside, Trev says, ‘The foxes have got to brush up on their three Rs!’ and off they go again.
Trev must have reached his plateau, too, at this point, because when he rings me up the next day, he can’t remember a thing, he says. Not the blokes in the Grapes; not the flat afterwards; nor the cab ride home; nor the news item about the fox. ‘So what happened then, bud? Anything?’ he says. He’s surprised and disappointed when I tell him nothing at all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013