Repatriated after two months sur le continong, I walked down the sunny high street marvelling at English cheerfulness. A poster in the window of Lloyds bank showed two young chaps hugging joyfully below the words ‘He said yes!’ And a man loitering beneath these newly betrothed I recognised as my great friend Tom. When I think of Tom, I always think of a sentence of Max Beerbohm: ‘None, it is said, of all who revelled with the Regent, was half so wicked as Lord George Hell.’
Tom spotted me from 20 yards away and his expression changed from blandness to incredulity to that look of apology he always gives me as he remembers what happened the last time we broke bread, and the time before that. It could also be an apology offered in advance of the catastrophe that now lies ahead of us. We embraced every bit as passionately as the chaps in the Lloyds bank poster above us. Tom is a short guy with a body as hard as a dog’s head.
I haven’t seen Tom sober or straight for ten years. He was one of our first explorers, about ten years ago, of the brave new world of legal highs, enjoying above all else the out-of-body experience offered by the cheaper products. After years of living at one remove from reality, a savage blow to the head with a non-stick frying pan, inflicted during a dispute with a friend about ownership of a small amount of illegal highs, had seemed to put him permanently beyond reach.
But I’ve always refused to condemn Tom’s suicidal lifestyle because he is a hard-working builder, he is untroubled by melancholy, and he has a big and loving heart. Moreover, he has a huge dick, which he calls Scarface. Rightly proud of Scarface, Tom is easily persuaded to get him out in the pub and interview him about his latest exploits. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t call him a loser.
‘I’ve confounded my critics,’ said Tom, when I asked him how things were with him. His beloved father died last year. His father was a brilliant acoustic guitarist, one of the best in the world, though not a particularly well-known one. He was a guitarist’s guitarist. And Tom has inherited a little money from him. Everyone in town (said Tom) knew this, and nodded sagely to one another, predicting that Tom would shove every last penny up his hooter and that would be the end of Tom, finally.
And I could tell immediately what he meant by confounding his critics, because after years of being away, Tom was back in his right mind as starkly as that madman in the Bible story of the Gadarene swine. It was the eyes. They were clear and calm. They seemed shriven, too. Humbled. I was glad, surprised and a little unnerved. ‘What’s happened?’ I said, fearing the malign influence of some bonkers religious cult. What happened was that drugs binge that everyone expected hadn’t happened, he said. He’d bought himself a nice waterproof and breathable jacket so far, but that was all. I might have looked as disappointed as the others, because he hastened to reassure me that his motives were purely contrarian. He enjoyed seeing the look of surprise on other people’s faces, he said. And then he noticed that he enjoyed being straight. Life was good. He was in work and living peacefully in a caravan in the woods with his lovely new girlfriend and the bluebells all out. They were thinking of maybe going to Sri Lanka for a fortnight.
‘And how is Scarface?’ I inquired. Scarface, he said, relieved to get off the subject of his redemption, was in disgrace. His girlfriend had woken him in the night wanting Scarface, but Scarface had declined her. His girlfriend had made a scene about it, which turned violent, necessitating his leaving for work at five o’clock this morning. He took Scarface out of his trousers, laid him in his palm, wagged an admonishing finger at him, and put him back.
Then we went to the pub, took our drinks out into the beer garden and joined some builders enjoying an after-work pint of cider and a spliff. One of these spliffs came in our direction, but I didn’t want any, and neither did Tom. Tom is a chemicals rather than a herbal man, so his refusal wasn’t significant. But as we sat and joined in with the builders’ moaning and banter, I knew that Tom was changed because he was playing his part in a sensitive and highly intelligent fashion, instead of liking his own thoughts rather too much. And when I got up to get the next round, he said he only wanted a half. Remarkable.