Atmospheric Anomaly

I think there must have been something in the air that day - the day I dragged myself from Tom's spare room bed after another expensive and depressingly boring night out in London. I had to get home, out of the city - to somewhere anonymous and calm, somewhere without pressure, the pressure of money and the pressure of having a good time, somewhere where it didn't matter that I consistently failed to live up to it. So it was with thick and painful blood sloshing around my skull that I faced the fresh and cold morning, vainly hoping that the walk to the tube station would cause the alcohol sweating from my pores to evaporate.

God, I was depressed. Not in a wrist slashing, clinical sort of way of course - just down and pissed off. Fifty pounds I had got through last night - A pub, full of people laughing, drinking, smoking, apart from me, sat at a table wondering why I felt sick and just wanted to go home. But I hadn't seen Tom and the others for a while, so I went on with them to a dark and loud club, drinking lethally expensive drinks with, unfortunately, a less than lethal effect. Why didn't I have enough money, stamina and joie de vivre to have a good time? Maybe it came from using phrases like joie de vivre... But why did everyone else seem able to have a laugh? I've seen twentysomething T.V. shows. Beautiful men and women, wearing expensive clothes, having a great time. But I couldn't seem to do it, couldn't live up to the expectation. What the hell was I going to tell the grandchildren?

Sad man who looks a bit like Will Self or is it just me?

Trying not to retch at the smell of stale nicotine that seemed to ooze from the walls of the tube station, I bought a ticket to Paddington and headed to my platform. It was then I started to sense the strange atmosphere. I've thought since that maybe this is what people were like early on a Saturday morning - a union formed by an unwilling early exit from bed and the need for a new head, resulting in the dropping of barriers, a pleasure in the existence of other people. But I've tried to find that feeling again, and I haven't - not even on a Saturday morning. No, things were just unnaturally odd - somehow I could just sense that it was ok to say good morning to people, relax in the company of strangers, to smile at anyone who caught my eye, with a knowing complicity in the unusual atmosphere.

All the same, it was with some surprise that I watched a pretty girl walk up to me and smile. I hesitantly smiled back, hoping my eyes twinkled in the same way.
'You're very well dressed,' she said. 'That means one of two things. Either you're gay, or your girlfriend dressed you. So which one are you?'
I was silent for a second, intimidated by the familiar feeling of being the less dominant partner in a conversation even before I had spoken.
'The former' I said. Somehow it was less embarrassing than the truth - the latter. Again she smiled at me, half said, 'oh well' and was gone. As I felt the rush of air, pushed out of the tunnel by an incoming train, on the side of my face, I smiled to myself. Whatever it was floating around, mixing with the murky fumes of the city, and the contagious germs of the underground, it made me feel happier.

But as I sat on the train, staring blankly at the travel insurance advert above the seat opposite, I wondered at the truth. She was taking the piss, surely - she was probably returning home after a night out. Drunk, drugged whatever - having the sort of time I should be having. She had seen the wanker standing alone on the platform, and decided to have a bit of a laugh. And then go back to her mates. In fact maybe there was nothing in the air - everyone was just mucking around, drunk, high, having the time of their lives and ripping the piss out of the outsider. And as I emerged into the gleaming, futuristic refurbished Paddington station, it seemed to me more like a hospital, sterile, clinical and dead...

What was I thinking? I wandered towards the train timetable, chastising myself for being such a self-absorbed, angst-ridden child.
As I was scanning the board for a train that would take me home I noticed someone slowly approach me out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look, and he suddenly smiled at me.
'I wasn't sure whether it was you or not. How are you doing?' He grabbed my hand, and firmly shook it.
'Hi! Yeah, I'm really well. How about you?' I enthusiastically answered trying to work out who the hell he was. The face did look familiar - short, cropped dark hair, grey eyes, slightly unshaven (but weren't the Saturday club all?) and a flat face, as though an abusive parent had brought a large frying pan at speed into the centre of his nose at a crucial stage in development.
'Not bad, not bad at all,' he said vaguely and then, 'when's your train? Let's go and grab a coffee and catch up.'

It was Bob, I was sure now. A friend of a friend who I had met briefly a couple of times, and both times we were drunk. I remember that he had been a little over familiar those times as well. We found a table at a café and ordered a couple of drinks. Bob lit a cigarette, and happily talked about what he was up to at the moment - just graduated, looking for a job, didn't really have hope in hell of getting one etc.- while I tried politely to avoid the various clouds of bluish smoke wafting around my head, a result of dramatic hand gestures.

George Eliot really was a man

Suddenly he stopped in mid-flow. 'God, did you hear about Pete? Do you know him?'
'No, I don't think so'. Fairly unlikely since I barely knew Bob.
'Oh well... but I'll tell you anyway', he said eagerly, then after a quick check of his watch, 'but I must be brief. My train leaves soon.
'In my opinion' he started, 'Pete is a real twat. Always has been - utterly self-obsessed. Image, trend - he has to master it all. What you see with him is a carefully arranged appearance to the world. He has an idea of what it is he must be - a certain cultural ideal - and creates it. In clothes, idiom, music, films, hairstyle - the lot. I don't really know the right way to describe it...'
Bob paused for a second, thinking. 'I know, he watches all those T.V programmes, the ones which outline his chosen lifestyle'.
'What like Ground Force, Changing Rooms?' I ventured.
Bob suppressed a smile. 'No - Friends, This Life, Ally McBeal - American, '90s, coffee drinking, sensitive, hair dressing... sorry, I'm getting a bit carried away. It's just that it's so transparent. Why can't he just be him, for God's sake? Actually, I think he thinks he lives in a TV show. A kind of Pete's Creek perhaps. Except maybe with a studio audience. I'm sure whenever he enters a room he hears cheers and applause in his head.'
I laughed. 'Why does he do it?' I asked.
'Not a clue. Maybe he's not happy with himself. Maybe he just wants to try and get women. Of course he's deluded in both instances. It makes him a right pain. So dismissive of anything that doesn't fit into his idea of things. It was this that contributed to his downfall.' Bob smiled with glee at his melodramatic language.

'He was in a music shop. One of those slightly esoteric ones - lots of vinyl, small, full of musos. He was leafing through whichever records were 'cool' at the time, enjoying the mental delusion of being seen and admired. Just then this bloke came in. He walked up to the front desk and asked if the shop stocked the latest Five album. Pete, arsehole that he is, could not resist this and let out a loud snort of derision, followed by a disdainful look. The bloke noticed, and as he left the shop, gave Pete a slight shove into the racks. Pete stumbled forward, and hurt that his image of trendyness had been a little dented, called out 'wanker' after the guy. The bloke left the shop, and then, all of two seconds later, re-entered with his two brothers.

'They dragged Pete out of the shop, threw him onto the pavement and proceeded to give him a mild kicking, and then started to rip off his clothes - the gilet, the Polo shirt, the chinos; they all came off, and Pete was left there on the street just in his boxer shorts. Obviously it was at that time that wonderful fate decided that a group of his friends should be walking down the street. Normally they would have helped him, picked him up and dusted him off. But the crucial boxer shorts delayed that for a while. Pete, king of trend, image, young twentysomething cool, was wearing not Calvin Klein, not Pierre Cardin, but Fred Flintstone underwear. I think Barney Rubble was on them too. They were scuba diving, I believe, with rocks as aqua-lungs. He was a laughing stock. His friends did help him, but not after pissing themselves with laughter for at least five minutes.

'After that Pete retreated into himself and hasn't been seen out much since. I hope he's learning how to be genuine. You know Paul, these fake people always get destroyed in the end.'
'Simon' I corrected him.
'Sorry mate?'
'My name's Simon' I said.
There was a pause. Bob's cheeks slowly reddened and he looked down at his coffee.
'Oh... I'm sorry', he stammered, 'I thought you were someone else'. He hurriedly stood and picked up his bag.
'Um... sorry,' he repeated, and was gone.

I sat stunned for a few minutes. Frowning, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Hadn't I heard somewhere that that guy Bob was off in South America for a year? Slowly I picked up my bag. My train was being announced. It was that atmospheric anomaly again, must have been. Despite the embarrassment of the situation I realised that I felt great, fantastic. My head still hurt, but that seemed to be the only thing left from last night - even this morning. Suddenly there there was no pressure - I didn't care. I'd tell the grandchildren whatever I wanted. Thank God for Pete.

Robert Allen