There's a soft knock on the door and Dan knows who it is, but he can't help but growl 'what?' around his cigarette at being interrupted in the middle of the first decent paragraph of anything real he's managed in a week and a half.
Pingu half-smiles mildly without flinching, leans against the doorframe and shoves his hands in his pockets. He does duck his head a bit when he says, "Sorry," which he'll probably never not do. "Only we're ready to go to press in the morning if you've finished your editorial."
Dan's editorial is a blank document with 'Occupy This' at the top. It's half written in his head, an Ashcroft-standard vitriolic screed against stupid children who don't know what they're protesting except that it's Well Revolutionary to live in a tent and chant what people with a clue tell them; all that needs filling in are the spaces around 'gormless fashionable dissenters' and 'stylish kids in the hashtagged riot' and 'if you need a movement, try your bowels.' It will inflame and enrage, and Pied-Pipe the very idiots it's speaking against along behind him, and editorials are print-only, so it will sell magazines, at least to the ten people who will scan them and put them on the internet. Dan thinks about sales now, and is usually able to sleep doing it. Mostly. "Press deadline's midnight Tuesday." It's 9 pm Monday, and outside his door the pinball machines are quiet and most of the lights are out. Games and tiny tractors and trampolines and sandwich cricket are pain-of-death banned except within 12 hours of a press deadline. The last time anything made a noise was when they were waiting up for statements on the Libertines reunion. So it's just waiting on Dan. "I'll have it done." Dan's fingers mistake his coffee cup for the ashtray. "Fuck it."
"I know," Pingu says. "The layout's ready so all you've got to do is paste it in. If you get done I think everyone's at the Nailgun for a bit."
"You hate the Nailgun. Robin coming?"
Pingu blushes. "I don't know," he says, but in a way that means probably and that he hopes so. "Do you want another coffee before I go?"
After a broken leg and a broken arm and two broken thumbs and two months of non-negotiable, inextricable, inexcusible reality TV, Pingu had been the only one who'd speak to him like a human being, without either worship or condemnation, so Dan can't fool him any more than he can fool Dan. "I'll sort it. Piss off."
Pingu does that smile-fraction again and nearly looks like he's going to leave, but then his hands are out of his pockets and he's shifting about like a period-drama servant. "Dan?"
"There's a couple of emails that came to the general address for you. I can't work out if you'd want them or not, but--"
"Forward them and piss off."
Pingu prefers to be called Ben these days, which Dan usually manages to accommodate except in states of extreme drunkenness. The Nailgun became the Dick Tracy (commonly just the Dick, thanks to puerile humour and the sign defacement that occurred a record low of three hours and six minutes after the official re-re-re-opening-- Dan had won the pool on that, minus the twenty quid he'd paid a wide-eyed intern with bits of cocktail straws in his ear piercings to spray a giant cock and balls over the 'Tracy'), and is now the Wife and Garters, but it's stayed the Nailgun amongst those who once upon a time vomited in its seatless toilets, and those who'd like to pretend they did. Jonatton Yeah? is in rehab again (so Dan hears), Nathan Barley is terrorising New York, Claire's winning minor non-paying indie film awards and has a daughter, Sasha's opened a moderately successful wine-bar-cum-bookshop, and even Pingu-- Ben quietly posts flyers for his art shows on the notice board in the Sugar Ape kitchenette.
And as for Dan, his door says 'Managing Editor.' Behind that door are ten boxes stacked like a raggedy wall abandoned mid-construction, containing his first novel, which sells a copy or two every month to curious users of search engines and was never stocked even in Sasha's shop. It's also available from private sellers on Amazon for 1p plus postage. His second novel is currently three thousand words long. It would have been 3,500 by now if Pingu hadn't come interrupting, but the moment's gone and he can no longer grasp the exact wording of what Sadie Updegraff, idiot-stifled writer, had been about to say to her housemate-turned-lover to get him to stay after she'd fucked up. It's shit anyway. Idiot-stifled protagonists didn't sell before and won't likely sell now, but this is his one last toehold and it's going to go how he knows it should go.
Dan nods when he hears the creaking metallic bang of the downstairs door shutting behind Pingu. He ignores the pinging noise of his email and goes to dump his coffee cup in the kitchenette sink, and feels vaguely-respectable pride at the fact that he once would have drunk the coffee anyway. You take what you can get.
He means the fag end to stick to the side of the mug (custom-designed some five years ago by Ned, who he's refused on principle to have featured but probably deserves it at this point) but he pours too fast and it lodges itself in the drain, amongst what looks like a few bloated noodle fragments and an ancient bit of carrot suspended in nondescript slime. Nobody really cleans here, not since Dan scared away the very fashionably unfashionable American twentysomething who'd kept quoting cancer studies and regulations about indoor smoking at him. He could pick it out or try to wash it and the noodle-sludge down, but he just rinses the cup and leaves it and tries to make the coffee grinder do his bidding. It theoretically behaves as it should, as do the kettle and the mad-science-esque glass pot with its overpriced barista-chic filter, but even with the requisite seven sugars, it refuses to taste right. Pingu gets it closer to what it should be, but even when he makes it, it always defies correctness.
The bolded subject lines waiting in Dan's inbox are one from the idiot dick manager who spammed the magazine about Ariel Pink for six months after a scathing review before getting the hint, reading 'Underwood Management - Exclusive opportunity,' and that it's even been allowed to make it to Dan's sight is explained by a 'Dan: read this first.' The name of the sender only says E.J, but if he were writing about this, Dan would have said something about feeling his heart drop so dramatically and deeply that it was suddenly subject to digestion, because of course he's kept up and he knows who those initials belong to. Dan never used to take sugar. The House of Jones is a multi-storey car park now.
When confronted with someone you wanted to believe was Better Than Them becoming, in fact, Them, or perhaps having always been Them, it's bound to shake you. Dan thinks that might not be a bad opening line for his novel. It's also what he's waiting on one side of a table in a calculatedly neutral location (Costa) to be reminded of. Or to defend himself against. Both, really. Though he doubts he's got a leg to stand on now. He could make a lot of noises about undermining and subversion, but even though he understands how those things work far better than when he'd honestly, earnestly, blindly tried them, even though he knows that on some level it's all a calculated fuck-you perversion, it's still calculated, and that's when you lose the right to call anyone else a sellout.
The last time Dan actually spoke to Jones was B.W. and P.B. (Before Window and Post-Builder), and even that wasn't exactly speaking. More on the order of ranting, but there's no way for ranting at someone who's on that much speed to end well. Jones had called him a fucking idiot and Dan had shot it back at him in essay form, and even someone on that much speed can do a brilliant job of tearing you a new one on your own failings after being told he's a mediocre gimmicky DJ with a purely hip-ironic following. Jones hadn't come to the hospital and Dan hadn't gone back to the squat, and it had ended there. (It had begun before there, with Jones walking in glaring daggers at everything until he took one look at Dan with paint in his hair asking if there were any clippers and pissed himself laughing until Dan was laughing too and one or both of them kissed the other, but that beginning was meant to mislead, and it ended in the ranting and insults.)
The thing was, and still is, Jones is a terrible DJ. Ear-bleeding and direly arrhythmic and not anything that anyone could possibly consider good unless they've been told they're meant to think it's good, because it's revolutionary or some similar steaming load and he's got weird dolls and old McDonald's toys posed in a tableau on his mixer knobs, so it must be art and not just a knob shouting in his front room like he thinks he's some circuit-bent Tiesto. Dan's seen Jones do miracle-level work on electrical wiring to produce heating and light when no one was paying for any, and get a car running again when the alternatives were walking a very long way or freezing to death, but whatever principles he applied to power mains and combustion engines worked in reverse on music.
Dan's kept up, guiltily and furtively, and Jones is no better than he ever was, but with ten times the audience. Which makes two of them.
Across from the Costa there's a building site, managed by Chipes Construction. Dan thanks the universe for that special dramatic touch. If he hadn't been keeping up and seen a few photos, he's not sure he would have recognised the man who eventually arrives to sit down across from him, even if the fifteen minutes late arrival (Jones Standard Time) would have been a big clue. His hair is all one colour and looks like it might have actually been cut by someone who knows how rather than hacked at in the bathroom at 5 in the morning with speakers rattling the windowpanes, his clothes generally in the state in which they came off the decidedly first-hand rack, sleeves and all.
"Alright, Dan?" he says like it's been a week and not years.
Jones shakes his head and laughs. That's the same. "Skipping the small talk."
"Never was any good at it."
"Shit, more like. I read your book."
"Ah. So you were the third person. We don't do EDM, so unless you'd like the Skrillex treatment, you're wasting your time."
"Mark wouldn't leave off any longer without a reason."
"You've got one. He would've got the same without you calling a summit. Or you could've just told him I'm a-- what was it, a hypocrite sham?"
"You could've told him I'm a talentless monkey-pandering fraud, but here you fuckin' are."
"Here we fucking are."
Dan's never stopped hating the smoking ban. He twists an empty sugar packet around his fingers and thinks about the one and only AA meeting he attended, at Claire's insistence, where a jowly businessman had talked about all the people he'd apologised to for things he'd done while he'd been drinking, ticking the wrongs off his list as if it would right them. Dan could do nothing else for the next decade and still not finish. There are things he will never be sorry for, but everything he turns up to sober is a calculated decision. There are things he will never stop being sorry for.
"Glasto," Jones says.
"What about it?"
"Y'know those times, right, where you just sorta forget for a second that somebody's dead?" Jones chews on the side of his thumbnail the same way he always has. "Glasto this summer, I accidentally gave Morrissey some complete apoplexy because I didn't know there was any fucking such thing as a meat-free VIP area, so I'm stood there with my fuckin' mouth gaping open, holding this horrible sausage on a stick--" Dan's started laughing and Jones is having to talk over him, loud enough that they're drawing glares from people on laptops-- "while the Mozzer in his poet blouse is going red in the face and spewing out this load of poetic wank about how evil meat is, and I'm stood there trying not to fucking piss myself and just laugh in his face and thinking fuck, wait'll I tell Dan about this."
Dan's sides hurt. His lungs hurt and he laughs his way into a rough fit of coughing and the point of the story sinks in. "And then you remembered I'm dead?" If dreaming your own funeral a dozen times counts, he could be.
"Not dead dead, but yeah, it was like that."
He remembers Jones leaving the squat one day at six in the morning in a suit with his hair combed. A cousin's funeral somewhere in Wales, and Dan still drunk the next afternoon when Jones came back, crumpled suit soaking wet up to his knees and a massive black umbrella with the tags still on streaming puddles onto the grimy concrete floor. Jones had sat on the rug in his pants and smoked a joint and said a lot of words that Dan now remembers very few of, because he was drunk, and he still doesn't know if the sloppy fuck on the settee that came after is a real memory or the illusion of one, but he does remember saying, because he was drunk, 'When I die--' and Jones had told him to shut the fuck up before he'd got to the bit about wanting Jones there under a vomit-green parasol and playing an electric kazoo, and Jones had spent the rest of the day making all his machines screech out noise that made Dan wish he were dead.
His real funeral will probably be equally ridiculous. At best he'll be eulogised as someone he wasn't, with idiots going round in RIP badges; at worst no one will turn up. But he fears not being remembered at all maybe more than being remembered wrong.
"Why go through your manager, then?" He watches Jones's hands move back and forth bending the handle of the tiny spoon that came with his espresso. His fingernails are clean, not stained with hair dye or paint or fuck-knows-what, but they're still bitten as ragged as ever. Some memories of them on Dan's back are real.
"Told you, didn't I? He was after a feature. I reckoned two birds with one stone. Pingu didn't know if you'd see me but he wasn't sure you wouldn't."
"Ben. It's Ben now. Or Devious Shithead."
"Aw, don't blame him. I cornered him. 's he shagging that bloke used to work for Doug Rocket?"
"Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you." There's more emphasis on 'you' than Dan means there to be.
Jones smiles tightly. "Fair dos. How's Claire?"
There's silence until Jones drops the mutilated spoon down on his saucer. "Right. I'm late for something."
"So am I, as it happens." He isn't. "Get what you came for?"
"I never fail to disappoint," Dan says with a grin and a flourish of his hand towards the door.
Jones stands up out of his chair so fast that he knocks the table and the cups clatter and the dregs of Dan's gone-cold coffee spill. "See you, then," he says. He throws something on the table and Dan watches his back disappear through the door.
Dan glares around at everyone staring and finally looks at what Jones threw down. A pair of all-access passes to Fabric, the cheap nylon lanyards soaking up the sugary coffee on the table. They're marked 'media' and dated next week. Dan pockets them and can smell the coffee all the way back to the office.
"Some fuckin' day, Ashcroft, you'll shoot yourself in the foot enough you won't be able to walk."
Famous last words. He could never fault Jones for foresight.
"Will you go?" Ben asks. He fished the passes out of the bin next to Dan's desk three days ago. Dan hasn't bothered to put them back in because he's decided Ben's grown some sort of Emma complex and it's not worth bending over, so they've been hanging on the edge of his monitor. They don't smell so much of coffee now as of the dumped ashtray they were thrown in on top of.
"The numbers look good on your editorial. This issue's even outselling the one with your piece on the riots and the scan's had six hundred reblogs on tumblr, not counting the ones before Billy Bragg called you a tit."
"Well done, me."
"Oh yeah, well fucking done. All hail the builder-wanking revolution. Christ, you can be so shit."
"Whatever it is, save it and piss off. You're sacked."
Ben's not sacked and he knows it. He should be; he should be saved from himself and his misguided loyalty and having to be mild in doorways and go properly do something because he's young enough that he still can, but even when Dan actually means it, he always turns up for work the next morning.
"See you tomorrow, then. You should check that Google alert I set up for you."
It's a saved search of several paparazzi sites. There's almost never anything on it unless Dan's been recently rat-arsed near somebody famous or done an interview in a public place, and even then half the time nobody remembers to put his name on it, if they even know who he is. But tonight, right at the top, is a shot of him talking to Jones, thanks to some fuck with a telescope hooked onto their camera. It has to have been taken during the Morrissey story, because Jones's hands are blurred in motion, and Dan's at the edge of the frame, laughing and showing yellow teeth nobody's bothered to Photoshop, leaning forwards and reaching one hand out towards Jones, hovering near his shoulder. He looks like shit warmed over and Jones looks like something that sells.
Dan stares at it until he can't anymore and opens the file drawer of his desk that holds nothing but a bottle of whiskey. The editor here before Jonatton Yeah? had always had one secreted away, to be pulled out in times of crisis or cases of jobs well done. Dan had found it romantically old-school at the time and later sought to emulate it before the shine wore off his new position. Jonatton had just kept an open bar on the ledge behind him where Dan keeps books he means to read.
Dan never uses a nice clean glass or bothers with ice, and he never announces that whomever can drink the most unnaturally blue shots without vomiting will get the cover feature. He just necks the bottle like he always has and tries to compose something in his head about the way Sadie Updegraff's nicotine-stained fingernails would look wrapped around it.
"'Cos drinking more's gonna fucking fix it."
"Shall I take some speed instead? Maybe enough to kill a horse and think a festering colon expulsion sounds like art?"
Nothing terribly literary presents itself. He thinks of other fingernails. Mostly he just stares at the computer screen and tries to rewind his way into the moment where he apparently, unconsciously, was about to lay a hand on Jones's shoulder, the moment where, in other worlds, laughter turns into lips on lips and it's normal and easy.
"Don't you fuckin' touch me."
Dan remembers having the wind knocked out of him in a shove against the wall vividly enough that he can't breathe, swallows wrong and gets a stinging nose full of bile and Jack Daniels.
"It's time to go to sleep."
A dream, a nightmare montage.
"It's time to go to sleep."
An empty funeral in pink and green dubstep disco lights.
Dan wakes up on his own sofa unable to remember getting there, his mouth disgusting and everything bleeding into everything else and the whiskey bottle upended in one of his shoes. Time was, he might have sucked the liquor out of the soaked insole. Time is, he throws up neatly in his white-tiled bathroom and puts on uncomfortable trainers that he hates and brushes his teeth and goes to work, where there's only one person to know enough to notice that he's acting like a dick on a different note than usual.
"What if I come with you?" Ben's holding a takeaway box that Dan knows contains his preferred hangover meal, a bacon roll and chips.
Dan feels cruel. "Won't Robin be jealous?"
Ben looks down. "He wouldn't have any reason to be."
The heat-seeking barb's hit its target and Dan feels sick and guilty, but he doesn't apologise. He just asks, "Why should I?"
"Because you're rubbish and you're just making excuses."
Guilty and sick, but he will never not love getting a proper rise out of Ben, the way he raises his chin and almost-slams breakfast boxes onto desks and speaks like he might actually finally do something.
Dan's chips are all jumbled up in the bread and bacon and the little plastic container of vinegar has come open and spilt over everything. "Quid pro quo," he begins.
Stageside at Fabric is deafening in a new and different way. All the sound is directed forwards to leave a bowel-shuddering bass and all the high notes screeching their way through Dan's earplugs, and there are a lot of high notes. He's never been here and has never wanted to come here, but his bleary ill-considered altruistic deal with Ben had him shamelessly nauseatingly kissing the arse of a promoter he's not spoken to in years to blag a third press pass. Robin's looked like a shocked fish since the opening act came on and made a good go of trying to womp-womp them into an anal prolapse, but he's holding Ben's hand.
Jones is still shit. The front row is composed of fist-pumping cuntrags in steampunk goggles strapped to slogan-printed trucker caps, all leopard print and guyliner, armpit hair poking out of their sleeve-divested Steve Aoki t-shirts and jeans tight enough, thank fuck for the gene pool, that their sperm counts are being lowered by the second. They're all the same. A braying clone army.
He plays Idiot Bingo with the audience and tries to ignore that Jones would be a perfect middle square. Jones cheers himself on as much as they do. Dan's got to admire the showmanship. There's a glitter of lights and something lets loose from the ceiling and it rains fortune cookies. Dan opens one and it's blank.
Then there's a long line of Nintendo sounds and breaking glass and vocoder effects over a bass line Dan would know anywhere. He'd know it blind and deaf and in a coma. He thinks he did know it in a coma. He'd drunkenly lectured Jones on why no DJ who ever wants to be taken seriously should use it, even if all their other records are broken and there's a gun to their head.
"This track is about meat," Jones shouts into the mic. The fuckwads cheer like they know what's coming. Jones looks off to his left for the first time in his entire set, straight at Dan. "And about pissing off Dan Ashcroft."
Under the roar of the idiots, there's a cheesy sequencer break, and then hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ. There's nothing recognisable after that, just a load of blips and noise and record-scratching and a sound clip Dan thinks might be from a Truffaut film, but it might be himself and it might be both.
And then they're all chanting like a time warp: "Preacherman. Preacherman. Prea-cher-man!"
Dan steps on Jools Holland's foot scrambling his way out of the benches. He spends a long time smoking in an alley and trying to work out whether he's just hallucinated or not. Jonatton Yeah? passes by on the street dressed like the Pope. Ben goes by waving from the back of a motorbike.
"They just do that." Jones appears, drenched in sweat and looking, for the first time, like the Jones he remembers, hair and clothes wet and plastered down and eyes full of manic adrenaline. Where he should have leather bracelets and raver bangles and wires, his arms are tattooed over with words of Dan's that he knows Jones can't have ever read.
"So of course you made sure to play it when you knew I might be here."
"I saw you. Call it revenge."
"Fuck you." He tries to shove Jones aside and leave, but his path is blocked. He could still get by, but he doesn't. "What are you trying to prove?"
"Nothing." It sounds less like nuffink than it used to, but there are still shades of it. Jones levels a glare at him. "Just an overdue welcome to the dark side."
"Star Wars jokes? Honestly?"
"Don’t blame me." Jones laughs, looking more sinister than he should be capable of. "Just get your head out of your arse and own what you are." Jones pushes up against him and there are cold rough bricks against his back, and he closes his eyes and the wall sucks him in.
Dan wakes up on the sofa again tasting sweets and alcopops that aren't there and never were. It's just a dream in his stale mouth. It's just him and his hardwood floors and his whitewashed walls and the stacks of boxes that have sat there for a year still not unpacked, and the sweat he's smelling is his own.
His mobile sounds with a text. Ben's still Pingu in his contacts. Are you coming?
Dan sends back his answer and extracts the whiskey bottle from his shoe. It’s three days dry and actually smells better now than the other one.
Stageside at Fabric is deafening in a new and different way.
Dan takes out his earplugs.