We hug, we kiss, we smile, and we laugh.
As we walk into town, I give them a demonstration of voice recognition prejudice, my incalcitrant GoPro performing its anti-Scottish role perfectly. G shows me the poisoned house, and where two people convulsed on a park bench. I tell A, only half-joking, not to touch anything … just in case. Only four of fifty years have passed.
The sun’s out, but the weather is as bitter as a jilted groom. J links my arm and says the fabric of my jacket seems very thin. I tell her that’s the beauty of it. Ten minutes later, she borrows my hat and gloves as she’s chilled to the b-b-bone. Even wearing two pairs of hats and gloves, she still manages to make it look like a fashion decision rather than a pragmatic one. Ahead, R and A stride off into the sunset, the distance between us growing greater. J, G, and I are not blessed with long legs, we are Jack Russells scampering along behind two giraffes.
In a cosy refuge beside a roaring river, we stoop below scarred black beams to interrupt a soup-eating girl to order ale, and a plaster for A. After years of harmony, her heel and red shoes have had a falling out. We toast our congregation and launch into pause-less diatribes and nonsensical conjecture. It’s all very serious and yet not in the slightest; the weather might be bitter, we are not. During a visit to the loos, I smile at a prophylactic machine selling something called Mandurance.
We are not on a pub crawl, simply connecting invitingly eclectic taverns between a starting point and a dinner date. With age comes wisdom, there are long stretches to walk between each inn so we can pace ourselves with athletic precision. The venue dictates the drink. In a grand old bar with tiffany lamps and mirrored surfaces, J and R sip espresso martinis while, like every other generation before us, we ponder the strangeness of the runners taking up our batons; of trying to get heads around non-offensive gender terms, negotiating a minefield where innocent full stops are considered passive aggressive and cheery thumbs ups drip with sarcasm, and of bodily abuse in a vain search for homogenous fabricated beauty. The people around us exude the refreshing attractiveness of people comfortable wearing their own skins, there’s no Botox on the lips, silicon on the tits on display here. J wanders outside for a smoke, engaging in conversation with a solitary man eating a full English breakfast whose mouth continues to gyrate furiously even when he’s not talking or eating. “What did you chat about?” we ask on her return. “No idea,” she laughs. “I couldn’t understand a word.” J will talk to anyone, even when there’s no intelligible conversation involved.
The next rung on the ladder leading us toward solid sustenance seems a rather reserved bar, but R and G tell us it regularly hosts bondage and cross-dressing nights. In yet another aged establishment of crooked snugs and nooks, we seek out a skeletal hand glowing in the ashes of a faux fire and are told about a secret cellar bar which only opens on Halloween. We toast and curse social media, before asking a young couple at the next table to take a group selfie that’ll never see the light of day. None of us are accomplished at turning it on and off for the black mirror. It takes five rowdy attempts before there’s a shot where at least one of us doesn’t have the expression of someone from a long-lost Amazonian tribe seeing a camera for the first time.
We arrive at the bawdy Indian slightly late and order a selection of lamb and prawn curries with naan bread and pilau rice to help ward of the influence of evil spirits who promise a good time but who will ultimately run off at some point to leave their victims in a crumpled heap. Table tittle-tattle includes gossip about a couple who have never farted in front of each other, and speculation on how they could possibly have achieved this … as a mischievous blend of real ale mixed with herbs and spices create an almost instant chemical reaction in the gut to add an inappropriately appropriate smelltrack to the story courtesy of not one, but two perpetrators. In the context of the tale being told, it is an expression of true and honest affection for the people around the table.
I have no watch and my phone remains sheathed. On nights like this I have no time for time. The evening shall end when it ends. But R informs us we can squeeze in one further tavern. Another round is ordered, and we occupy a long wooden table whose abused surface has withstood a century or more of boozy nights. On the wall above us is a black and white tapestry of a photo featuring three rows of old men in demob suits posing stiffly outside the bar. Many of these old men are probably half my age. Someone mentions the post doing the social media rounds which shows The Golden Girls at the height of their popularity beside the Sex and the City women as they are now; the older Sex and the City women looking far, far more youthful than their aged, younger counterparts from the 1980s. We’ve all seen it. Of course we have, it’s proof we’re not anything like as old at our age as our parents were.
Until the barman tells us it’s last orders, we laugh, smile, talk more pish, and sing badly along to Ian Curtis, Marc Almond, and Gene Pitney. It is intoxicating to be among friends who I have never felt the need to wear a mask for. It is a gloriously normal night out.
Tomorrow we will be old again, but tonight we are young hearts running free.