Nick settles into the corner of the cab, still half-asleep, his hands shoved in his pockets. The cabbie’s got some pirate station on and whatever’s playing is a mess of snowed-out drum-and-bass with a woman’s shrill voice cutting over the top. It sounds like something Nihal might play, and Nick’d probably like it if he could hear it through the interference. Maybe not before 6am though.
‘Mate,’ he calls. ‘Can you stick Radio 1 on?’
The cabbie looks at him impassively in the rearview before reaching over to change the radio station without saying a word. Nick can’t tell if it’s because he doesn’t give a toss or because he’s mortally offended. He shrugs to himself and watches London slide by outside the window. It’s darker than this time last week, though since he’s become a sunrise geek, as far as he’s concerned it’s been all downhill since mid-June. At least he’s happier than he was this time last year. Then, the slow slide towards winter had been bleak.
He lets Dev’s voice float over him and tries to remember what they’ve got planned for today’s show.
Matt’s already in the studio when Nick arrives.
‘Where’s my pressies then?’ he says, pulling off his hoody and jacket and draping them over the back of the chair.
‘What pressies,’ says Matt without looking up from whatever he’s typing.
‘I know there’s presents. Even if it’s just a quiz or summat.’
Matt looks up.
‘Who told you?’
‘It is! It’s a quiz. You lot are so predictable. What else?’
‘What else? You’re thirty not thirteen.’
‘Do we have to go through this charade? I know there’s other stuff.’
‘Yes, we have to go through this charade,’ says Matt. ‘That is how birthdays work. You get presents. They are a surprise.’
‘God. So annoying,’ Nick says, flopping into his chair, as Matt gets up from his. ‘Get me coffee.’
‘Maybe,’ says Matt, going out the door.
He will, Nick’s not worried. He leans over the desk to snag Matt’s show-plan. What’s on today? A bit of birthday stuff – a quiz, guess-the-birthday-wellwisher – but not too much. Ben C had been iffy about Nick making a big deal of his 30th. He didn’t want to remind younger listeners exactly how old his broadcasters were, but they’d talked him down in the end. No guests today, just some other R1 staff popping in for a chat. Plus a special birthday edition of the Nickstape – they’d swapped it to the Thursday for the occasion – which is basically an excuse for a dance and a champagne cocktail. Sometimes he wonders how he can think of giving this up.
They go to the pub after the show (Nick allows himself to go a bit Chris Evans every now and then, as long as he’s home and in bed by a reasonable hour) and by the time they get to Lemonia for lunch everyone’s already halfway to wasted. They’re joined by Pix and Gels and the usual suspects.
His present from Matt and the rest turns out to be a Radio 2 Welcome Pack consisting of slippers, a really amazingly ugly toupee (which Nick immediately puts on) and a Clannad CD.
‘Where do you think they’d put me in the schedule?’ muses Nick. ‘Back to night time?’
‘You could do a hip-hop show for pensioners,’ suggests Aimee.
Ian looks suddenly inspired.
‘Hip HOAP,’ he says dreamily, and Nick’s smile widens.
‘Brilliant! What do you think Finchy? Think they’d go for it?’
‘I’m sure it’s the scheduling change they never knew they needed,’ Matt says. ‘I’ll just ring Bob at Radio 2 now.’
‘Yay,’ Nick says and raises his arms, bracelets jingling, nearly dislodging the toupee.
An unnecessary number of pictures are tweeted to the general public and to absentees (‘We don’t need you, Chung’) and Nick’s crows’ feet are assessed.
‘Eagles talons,’ concludes Aimee.
‘The actual size of eagles’ talons,’ agrees Henry.
Matt comes in from the other side.
‘Oh, no, I would say…’ He peers at the corners of Nick’s eyes. ‘More like the Nile delta.’
‘Bastards,’ says Nick. ‘They’re laughter lines anyway. These lines are a sign of my natural joy.’
When the food starts soaking up some of the booze they settle down and stop annoying the piss out of the other punters quite so much. They may even have one or two sensible conversations – about Gels’ promotion, about the 1D split, about – oh yes – that interview with young Harold in The Guardian the other week.
‘Not that brave. They’ve split up. It’d’ve been even more amazing if he’d done it when they were still touring.’
‘Oh please, give the kid a break.’
‘I’m just saying, it might have had more impact if he’d done it when 1D were still together, still apparently the paragons of straight masculinity.’
‘Ugh, stop practising for being a twat on Newsnight, Matt,’ says Gillian.
‘I think it’s wonderful,’ says Nick. ‘I’m really pleased for him.’
And his is apparently the last word on the subject because they start talking about something else. Marcus pops by with a card and a kiss and perches on the edge of a hastily brought-over chair. He doesn’t stay long. ‘Take care,’ they say to each other when he goes, and Nick thinks he doesn’t deserve so sweet an ex considering what an arse he’d been towards the end.
Then they all go back to his for cake (it had arrived that morning from Alexa and was in the shape of a number 1 – ‘for your age, of course’) and more booze, or tea depending on previous state of drunkenness. Nick has both just to be sure. They spill out into the garden and the soundsystem is maybe too loud, but fuck it, Nick’s a good neighbour most of the year, and it’s the middle of the day and it’s my BIRTHDAY, he just about manages to stop himself announcing every half hour (unlike in previous years. Wow, he is maturing.)
Later, he leans back on the bench under the kitchen window, feeling rough brick against his back and watches Aimee and Henry dancing slowly in the sun, bumping hips and giggling, sloshing their drinks a bit. Nick remembers another time, another party in the garden when Harry had waltzed him around, knocking drinks over and making everybody cheer. He closes his eyes into the sun.
Miraculously, everybody drifts off by about 8-ish. His proper party’s on Saturday, because you can’t not celebrate a big-zero-birthday in style, but his days of school night piss-ups are over – he just can’t do them anymore. He settles down in front of the TV with the remote in one hand and a bottle of Pellegrino on the coffee-table. He’s read somewhere that sparkling water’s good for the skin. It’s probably rubbish, but it got stuck in his head, so here he is. There’ll be time for getting off his head on Saturday.
Apparently he falls asleep on the sofa because he’s woken around 11pm by his phone gently farting against the table. He fumbles for it, disoriented, thinking it’s his alarm then realising it’s not. The TV is on and blinding in the darkness. He finds the remote and leans over to switch on the lamp. His brain comes back to him a little. He switches the telly off and reads the message.
Not sure if this is late or not. Still crap at time zones. Sorry if it is. Happy b’day if not. You’re officially old now.
Nick texts back, thumbs not working properly, Just made it by an hour, Styles. And I prefer ‘late youth’, ta very much.
He runs a hand through his hair. He hasn’t seen Harry in months, and that had just been a brief meeting at some industry do. Sees him in the paper more often, though the other week had been weird, mainly because the Guardian was not the kind of paper Harry Styles usually appeared in.
Nick had been in the newsagents for a sneaky ten Marlboro when the paper’s masthead had caught his eye. There was an inset picture of Harry (with his new hair) and the headline Another Direction with, in smaller print underneath, Alexis Petridis talks to Harry Styles about new music and the curse of the boyband. Normally, he’d have just gone home and found the interview online, but for some reason Nick had had the urge to buy the paper, to have the weekend edition sit on his kitchen table while he made coffee. There had been a tasteful photo-shoot (‘Harry wears Prada jacket, £955’), and Alexis liked Harry (because who the hell didn’t?) and the interview had been insightful and kind. And then this paragraph happened.
One Direction mania, wrote Alexis, was perhaps the first time mainstream media culture in the West was confronted with the idea that teenage girls might like a bit of boy-on-boy action as much as their straight male friends like girl-on-girl. From there, the leap to having an out, gay member of a boyband didn't seem so great. Had Harry ever been tempted to come out at the time?
Nick had been lying on the sofa at this point, and had dropped the magazine onto his chest and closed his eyes. Alexis wasn’t a dick, so they must have agreed to talk about it beforehand. After a minute collecting himself he picked the magazine back up and read on.
‘Sometimes, yeah,’ Harry says frankly. ‘But… I know it seemed like less of a big deal then, than it was for Stephen Gately or that guy from Nsync, it was still something that would affect others, not just me. When you're in a band like that, you're responsible for way more people than just yourself. Your bandmates, yeah, but everyone around you who works for and with you. And that's not even counting the fans. So. It was never just my choice.'
Very quietly, in a relatively low circulation newspaper (though yes, it was huge online), Harry Styles had come out, or at least revealed he batted for both sides. So yeah. Weird was one word for it.
Nick gets up and shambles through to the bathroom and peers into the mirror. Eagles’ talons. Fuckers. He splashes his face with water and picks up his toothbrush, the hum of it lulling him as he starts to brush. He’s pleased with how it’s ended up between him and Harry. They’re still friends, or at least not enemies. They text and tweet, and issue birthday invites that neither has any intention of accepting.
He’d been glad of that last year. If Harry had turned up then, only a few months after that last conversation in Nick’s flat, Nick would have been a wreck by the end of the night, all maudlin and waily on his friends’ shoulders. Luckily for his friends, Harry didn’t appear.
Nick spits into the sink and rinses.
And it had started him on the road up. Missing Harry went from being a constant ache, to a dull background throb, to a pang every now and then. Harry went from being a permanent resident in his brain, to the occasional visitor. The invite this year is also purely symbolic – the days when Harry Styles would cross time zones for a couple of hours with Nick Grimshaw are long gone – but things are definitely better.
It’s 3pm on Saturday and Nick’s realising that having a thirtieth birthday party is actual work. Henry (Artistic Director) and Pix (Social Affairs) have been brilliant, but Nick as Entertainments Officer has been frankly crap. The DJ is still in Ibiza and the band’s broken down on the motorway from Glasgow and they’ve got a soundcheck at 5pm. Nick’s on the phone to their drummer who’s trying to make himself heard above the sound of the M40.
‘When are the AA supposed to be getting there?’
‘They were supposed to be here half an hour ago!’
‘Can you hitch a lift?’ says Nick, only half-joking.
‘What about our equipment?’
‘Just kidding – sort of. Listen. Leave it with me. I’ll try and light a fire under the AA’s arses and let you know what’s going on.’
They’re not even signed yet, and don’t have any money – it’s his AA contract they’re using – but Nick adores them and wants them to play his party. Mainly because they’ll be great, but also because it’ll be good exposure for them.
‘Thanks, Grimmy. You’ve been brilliant. Thanks for… not giving up on us.’
‘Shut up. Course not. See you tonight!’
He spends the next twenty minutes in phone-tree hell, finally getting through to an unbelievably chirpy and helpful AA advisor. Apparently the breakdown man broke down. Who knew that could happen? Sorted, but jesus, Nick’s ready for a drink already, but there’s another crisis to sort. The DJ’s not here and whereas the band are on later, the DJ has to be there from the off. Nick can tell there’s a possibility he’s going to have to do the first hour, which is annoying. He’s the host. He’s got to be there to charm the early arrivals and make them all feel comfortable. Bloody hell. Manny owes him for this, for sure.
He ends up with a stream of people popping in and out of the DJ booth to bring him drinks and kiss him hello and chat and it’s loads of fun. Better than standing about worrying about who’s not going to turn up. When Manny finally arrives, he’s brought a magnum of Veuve C. and is so pathetically apologetic Nick forgives everything and hugs him to get him to stop him babbling sorries. Once they’ve got him settled in, he says, ‘Oh, hey, that mate of yours came in with me.’
‘It’s my party,’ Nick laughs. ‘They’re all my mates.’
‘No,’ says Manny. ‘Your mate,’ and nods over to the entrance.
Nick had been vaguely aware of a stir a few minutes earlier and assumed it was Mossy arriving. She always had that effect, like an alien ship landing or something. Whoever’s just arrived is definitely surrounded though, and Nick has a hard time catching sight of them, and when he does, it takes a beat to recognise them.
Nick knew he’d cut his hair (Christ, who in the western world didn’t? It probably made the front page of The Financial Times). But for long seconds he only sees a handsome young man in the crowd. And then the handsome young man looks up from the cluster around him (all girls, natch), sees Nick, and smiles.
That fucking smile.
And Nick murmurs to himself, ‘Henry Stars.’