21:30 – Prelude (I Know You)
This is gonna be a heavy night / way too many drinks, ain’t even started / Never need to apologise / we already know we’re far from perfect
Ollie drummed along to the rhythm of the city. He hadn’t realised how much he’d miss the myriad of sounds until he found himself camped out in the silent desert in the dead of night. There was a comfort in being back and hearing life rattle around him like nothing had changed. The rat-atta-cha, of a train clattering on the tracks. Rat-atta-cha, rat-atta-cha, rat-atta-cha. Wings of pigeons rustling as they swooped to peck crumbs off the ground. Footsteps shuffling, heels and flats clickety-clacking as people hurried across the platform. Rat-atta-cha, ruffle, click. Rat-atta-cha, rustle, clack. Ollie leant back on a bench on a platform for the overground line, losing himself in the sounds of the city. A train emptied its passengers and they parted around Ollie like a stream around a rock, their conversations and hustling, bustling sounds added to the cacophony in his mind. He let the sounds build and clash together like a chaotic symphony, until – as always – they began to mutate into the ack-ack-ack of machine gun fire, and the whistling boom of mortars.
“No.” He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on individual sounds separating them. That was the train leaving. That was a car horn. A bird. A bike. Footsteps approaching, and stopping.
“Ollie? Ollie Green?”
A figure stood over him, silhouetted against the sunlight filtering through onto the platform. Ollie squinted, trying to place him, until the man took a step forwards into the shade and his face came into focus.
“Good to see you man, it’s been a while.”
Ollie was overcome with a strange sensation, he recognised the man before him, but his familiarity felt distant. He’d known Levi – known him very well – they’d been close friends at high school, but everything before Sandhurst, before the war, seemed like a distant memory; like something that had happened to someone else, or something he’d read about in a book. He remembered Levi, but he didn’t know him.
“Last I heard you were oversees, fighting for queen and country. When did you get back?”
“Few months ago.” Ollie replied automatically. It had been longer than that now though, he couldn’t remember exactly. The last few months were a haze of depressed darkness. He had very little recollection of what had happened since he returned home. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure why he was sitting on the platform; was he going somewhere?
“I heard what happened to Frankie. That’s rough – must’ve been horrible.”
Ollie’s throat seized up. He couldn’t even nod.
Clearly sensing that he’d strayed into dangerous territory Levi deftly changed the subject. “I’m heading out for drinks with some of the guys from Glenbrook – do you remember Nick and Stuart? – Want to come? They’d be stoked to see you.”
Stoked. Ollie wasn’t sure anyone was ever stoked to see him anymore. Not since Frankie. Not since…
He dragged a hand through his hair, shaking out his sandy blonde curls and forcing the bad memories from his mind. He could definitely use a drink, and it wasn’t like he had anywhere else to be. He smiled, hoping Levi wouldn’t notice that it didn’t reach his eyes, and unfolded himself from the bench. It was all too easy to slip into the charming, bubbly persona which had carried him through life thus far. He looped his arm around Levi’s shoulder and together they loped out of the station, cutting through the streets of London like they had in the good old days.
The sun slipped behind the buildings, setting the sky on fire with a majestic burst of pink clouds. Static hung in air with the threat of a thunderstorm and the city felt tightly wound, like a coiled spring or a loaded gun just waiting for a spark. Brexit Party flyers crunched under their shoes and a few steps later they passed graffiti bemoaning climate change, foretelling the end of the world in floodwater and fires. As they walked, Levi filled Ollie in with everything he’d been up to since Glenbrook: English at Leeds, followed by a Masters when he couldn’t think of anything better to do, a couple of years of traveling, months of job searching, and finally saving up enough to move out his parents house and into a shitty little flat in Brixton. It was nice to hear about a normal life, if a little surreal to think of all the things he could have been doing instead of learning how to kill, and pulling his friends from fiery wrecks of bombed out tanks. No. Ollie pushed that thought from his mind and focused on Levi. On his mop of dark hair which he still hadn’t managed to tame all these years later, on the slight bulge of his arms which had filled out under his shirt, and on the five o’clock shadow that crept along his jaw. He nattered about the merits of taking the bus rather than the tube from his new place, and his eyes sparkled when he weighed up the pros and cons of trying to cycle to work. Ollie wasn’t really paying attention to what he was saying, but it was a pleasant distraction to just listen to the musical cadence of Levi’s voice. He’d always had such a lovely way with words.
They came to the bar Levi was heading for, flashed the bouncers their ID, and slipped inside; instantly overwhelmed by loud music and liquor tainted air. The sounds clashed together in Ollie’s mind: the dun-dun of the bass line and the rhythmic thud of the beat. For a moment it threatened to drown his mind, until Levi grabbed the sleeve of Ollie’s dark green jacket and pulled him towards a booth at the side of the room.
Nick and Stuart hadn’t changed a bit. A little older, but none the wiser. They’d been Ollie’s first platoon, his first squadron, and it was all too easy to fall in step beside them once again. Soon the drinks and banter were flowing and Ollie felt more at ease than he had in a long time. Nick was a doctor now, if you could believe it, and Stuart worked in finance, handling obscene amounts of money on a daily basis. They chatted for a bit about their current lives, but their conversation kept returning to Glenbrook and the stupid shenanigans they’d got up to in high school.
“Do you remember when you set the fume cupboard on fire in Mr Griffith’s chemistry lab?” Stuart asked Ollie, laughing.
“That’s an exaggeration, slightly,” Ollie slurred. “I didn’t set the whole fume cupboard on fire.”
“Yes you did!” Nick laughed. “Oh Christ, I’d forgotten that.”
“You dipped a lit splint into the – oh what was it – ethylene or something flammable, and knocked the bottle over, which spilled this burning liquid all over the bottom of the cupboard and – whoosh – up it went in flames.” Levi added, nearly crying with laughter at the memory.
“And do you remember Mr Griffiths? Flapping to try and put it out?”
“Didn’t he have a cast or something at the time?”
“Yes! A bandage on his arm that caught fire until that prefect, what was her name?”
“Yeah, Mable, got the fire extinguisher and put it out. Oh god. So funny.”
The three of them fell about laughing. Ollie forced a smile, though it was more of a grimace. He saw it all in his mind; Mr Griffiths’ bandage burning as he screamed for help. Frankie howling in pain, his clothes burning right off his body. The stench of burning, the sickening smell of burnt human flesh. A waitress walked past their booth with a tray of chicken wings for a table across the bar. The smell reached Ollie and he retched, sick to his stomach.
“’scuse me.” He sipped out of the booth and pushed his way to the bathroom, fighting through crowds of merry drinkers and people queuing (“Oi, mate!”) until he crashed through a stall door and threw up in the toilet.
“Put it out. Put it out. Help me. I’m going to die.”
“No you’re not, Frankie. Help’s coming. They’ll be here soon. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m going to die.”
“Help’s coming. Stay with me, Frankie. Stay with me.”
Ollie flushed the toilet and stood on shaky legs before stumbling to clean himself up in the sink. He rinsed his mouth with water, spitting the bitter taste of vomit down the drain, and splashed handfuls of cold water over his face. Bracing his hands either side of the basin he stared at his reflection, almost not recognising the face staring back at him. He looked gaunt and tired, his high cheek bones even more prominent above sunken cheeks. He’d lost his tan and his skin looked pale and sallow under the bright lights of the bar bathroom. He grabbed a hand towel to dry himself off and ruffled his hair back into looking artfully dishevelled rather than just dishevelled. God, he needed a drink.
By the time he returned to the booth laden with another round of drinks (including two additional shots for himself) the others had been joined by a guy in a yellow t-shirt. He looked Greek, or maybe Indian, with curling dark hair and a scrub of beard on his chin. He grinned at Ollie as he approached the table and slid the drinks into the centre.
“Sorry,” Ollie faltered, “I didn’t get you anything.”
“S’alright, I don’t drink.” The guy beamed. “I used to, don’t get me wrong. God knows the medics always threw the best bar crawls at uni, I don’t think there was a weekend in first year when I didn’t have a hangover that lasted until Wednesday. Hangovers are the absolute worst, though. Nothing takes the edge off a hangover. That’s why I prefer cocaine.” He laughed, they all did, not sure if he was joking or not.
“Ollie this is Blaine, a fellow doctor.” Nick introduced him. “Ollie just got back from a tour in – where were you again?”
“Which unit?” Blaine asked, without waiting for a reply. “Got a mate out there serving as a medic. God the tales he tells. Sounds like hell. Not sure I could cope with it to be honest, I can’t even stand a night shift in A&E. We had a motorbike accident in yesterday, right? Guy hadn’t been wearing leathers and the skin had just been scraped off the whole of his left side. I’m not even meant to be on rotation in the emergency room, but cuts, you know, we’re understaffed and everyone else was tied up with these kids that had stabbed each other, so I got the page and –” he was off, talking a mile a minute, filling the silence and regaling them all with terrible tales. Ollie sat back, content to listen.
He was pleasantly buzzed, the lights and sounds of the bar blurred; soft at the edges. For a moment, just for an instant, Olllie felt okay. If he could stretch that moment and ride it through until morning he would. If he could freeze that instant where nothing hurt and his mind was balanced between calm and chaotic, he’d live in it for an eternity.
Of course it had to end. Things always did.
“Last orders!” The bar tender shouted over the din of the music. Ollie was surprised to find it was gone twelve.
“That’s our cue to go home.” Stuart drained the last of his pint.
“But it’s only quarter past midnight! The night is young!” Blaine protested. “We’re just getting started.”
“Nah, I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Bullshit, I know your schedule, Nick – you’re not in until 3, you can have another drink, or two.”
“Where? All the good places are closing. I’m not going clubbing.”
“God, no. Not a club. Not with their overpriced drinks, sticky floors, uninspired music, sweaty crowds, horrendous toilets, and drunken idiots trying fuck you or fight you. No, we’re not clubbing.”
“Then where? I’m not drinking under a bridge again with you, Goldberg, we’re not nineteen anymore.”
“A house party! I’ve got mates in the eastend who throw a big fuck off party every Friday night. There’s, like, 6 of them all in a giant townhouse and it always slaps, you know?”
“I’m not crashing a house party.”
“You’re not crashing. I’m inviting you. I was heading there anyway until I ran into you guys.”
Nick and Stuart shared dubious looks. Blaine gave up on them and turned to Ollie.
“C’mon, you look like a man up for a laugh, you coming?”
Ollie considered. He certainly wasn’t ready to go home just yet. “Yeah, sounds fun.”
“And what about you, Billy Jeans?” Blaine directed at Levi. Levi glanced at Ollie for affirmation before shrugging.
“Yeah, alright. Drink life to the lees, and all that.”
“Oh, fucking hell, you’ve twisted my arm.” Nick groaned.
Blaine gave a delighted ‘whoop’ before extracting himself from the booth. “Uber’s on me!” he shouted and disappeared towards the door.
“That guys a lunatic,” Levi laughed. “You sure he’s a doctor?”
“Best in our intake,” Nick shrugged. “Don’t know how he does it.”
“Crashing a house party in the eastend, what could possibly go wrong?” Stuart sighed and drained the last of Nick’s drink which he’d left sitting on table.