He stood there, not knowing what to say to people he had met once before, about six months ago at another workshop, and who since then he had only interacted with through Twitter. They asked how his train down here was. Not bad, only two hours or so–met with sounds that could have meant anything, but he assumed it was a mutual understanding. On the train he had read a novel by a writer from New York who blogs and magazines called the voice of his generation. That is, a generation that was bored with life, who spent all their time on the internet, looking at cat pictures and porn. There was a woman sitting opposite him, even though the train was near enough empty. She spoke on her phone for the duration, with a pile of documents in front of her. He could tell it was an important phone call by the fervour with which she spoke. How she had to get something done that day, needed to get it finalised before the client could get back in touch with her. He was annoyed that she could see that he was trying to read, but still she persisted with her monologue. He didn’t say anything, just stared at his book.
They had another five minutes until the lecture started so decided to get coffee. He walked slightly behind the other two, who had known each other for years, coming from the same town, doing their postgraduate work at the same place, and were seeing each other for a short while. He wondered why it broke down. They were total opposites in a comedy-double-act way. She was argumentative and antagonistic, he was shy and placid. It worked. He watched how they stood only slightly apart from each other, indicating an intimacy that implies they are no longer like that but still close. He was a third wheel, some kind of growth. He had no cash for coffee, so he just took a Diet Coke from the shelf and walked away. The lecture was in an art school, an old building that looked like it used to be a dock warehouse. The coffee shop was a refurbished streamline caravan with one side cut and flipped up to expose the products. He wondered, isn’t this what art school kids do? Be subversive, smash capitalism 500ml at a time?
They took their seats and he recognised others in the room from lurking online. He thought of addressing them by their usernames. They’d think what or who the fuck? He would laugh, but it would only be him laughing. So he left it. It started late. He sat as though it started the minute he walked in, that he was late; eyes glued to the front of the room. He saw others reading. He envied their dedication, to be reading persistently, even up until the beginning of what would be a difficult lecture. Then he thought that it’s so pretentious, ostentatious even; they want you to think they are the great minds of today, struggling with other great minds. He took out his notebook and wrote the title of the lecture.
Afterwards, they went for drinks in a pub nearby. Meeting others there, he didn’t feel so bad, he could blend into the background and interject at will. He ordered a whisky and Diet Coke, and sat next to the guy he knew. The rest of the group were already talking. He thought they would be talking about the lecture, dissecting and deconstructing it. Instead, they were making in-jokes that he knew nothing about so he stared at the screen of his phone. He heard something about harassment when one of the girls was in Paris. Not knowing why, he thought it would be funny to tell them about the time a Swedish girl had tried hitting on him in a Starbucks just off Place de la Bastille. He had ordered an Americano in his distorted accent when the girl had asked where he was from. England. She told him she was Swedish and wondered if he was just visiting or lived there, if he was with anyone and if he wanted to sit with her. He was with his girlfriend so simply said “I’m just visiting, thanks” and walked away. The story was met with slight vitriol, a side-glancing look.
They drank some more. He hadn’t eaten, so by this time it had gone to his head. They all decided to go get food at a Mexican restaurant near Tottenham Court Road. Someone said they should get shots. They had two or three mescal. The place was cramped with City suits everywhere. When they sat down to order they had to move two tables together. He sat on the end, ordered enchiladas and took gulps from a frosted glass. He was tired after travelling here early. He had to be early to get his girlfriend some things you couldn’t get back home. Now he was feeling it. After he had finished his enchiladas he fell asleep on the table with the hum of conversations going on around him. He didn’t know how long he was asleep for, but he felt the somebody’s eyes burning the back of his neck when he was woken. The restaurant was closing and everyone decided to go to some girl’s house.
It took a walk and two buses to get there, but he was happy to finally be in a house. He lay on his back on the couch with his knees bent, so as not to stop anyone wanting to sit at the other end. He stared at circles of light brown segue into dark in the corner of the ceiling. Around him he felt the hum of conversation muffled by what he thought could have been either Texas is the Reason or Mineral. His head was beginning to hurt. He went outside for a cigarette. A fox walked past, only a few yards in front. The fox stopped and gave him a glare like he was watching a blind homeless guy play a cardboard guitar. Its coat was deep orange, morphing into brown as it arced around the hips. He stared at it, realising this was the most eye contact he had made with anyone all day. He tried to call it over, tutting like it was a cat, but the fox ran off through bushes on the other side of the road.
He lit another cigarette, and then heard the door behind him click shut. Turning to see who it was, there was a girl who wasn’t at the lecture but met for food after. She was short with eyes like the fox had. She asked if he felt better after his nap in the restaurant. A couple of short huffs were made to resemble laughter. Sitting down next to him, she took a cigarette from the pack on his lap. She explained how smoking clogged her arteries and this was bad for her because she has to inject insulin, affecting the circulation of it. She didn’t care too much, she explained. With reading so much philosophy she had almost rationalised and accepted the end, to the extent that she was already dead. Not literally the cessation of her biological motions but what she chose to call the dialectical negation of death. He guessed this was quite optimistic; people spend so much time worrying and being unable to make decisions, when already the decision has been made, or there wasn’t even any choice to begin with. He kept eye contact, though her gaze wandered from his eyes to his hands, then to some indeterminate space.
People started shuffling out the doorway and the two of them stood to let them by. They went back inside to the deserted room. Echo and the Bunnymen were now playing from a small iPod dock in the corner of the room. She gave him a quilt and asked him if that would be okay. Any kind of sleep would do, he thought, exhausted. They said goodnight and he watched as she walked towards the stairs.
Liam Jones has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as Jacobin, Gorse and Figure/Ground. He blogs at plastictexts.wordpress.com, and writes on continental philosophy and contemporary fiction. @mailjones