I intended not to phone John as he’d asked but go to Quentin’s symposium on my own but he was standing in wait outside Richmond station. He hadn’t any more money than the night before and an oyster card with £5 credit added for bus journeys only. This was Sunday but the trains were not running at all and I hadn’t prepared alternate routes. A small assistant at the barrier asked where I was going, Haggerston Station, and said the overground trains were on but I’d have to change at Highbury or Canonbury. Throughout, the train’s voice warned John he’d have to have a valid ticket or pay a penalty. I reassured him this was unlikely to happen when we changed trains but was looking forward to the drama at Haggerston which he obviated by telling me to take the wheelchair barrier, slipping through behind. A girl was standing beyond. Not sure which direction to take for Shrubland Road I went back to ask and was accosted by Myling, whose name I remembered by recollecting the ‘My’ and the rest shortly following. We meet at Quentin’s dos. She was waiting for Yasmeen but told us how to go, making a sharp turn left. I took the turn right but from my A-Z retrieved our direction in time for Myling and Yasmeen, whose name I ascertained later for my diary didn’t begin with a J and had too ees, to catch up on us. Yasmeen I also meet at Quentin’s birthday parties. At the door Myling said it was exactly four, when the symposium was to begin, with Quentin opening the door to us.
In the party room I handed over card and present of grey hoodie and shorts, which did seem to please, “to see your spindly legs,” handing over the Taittinger for him to open. He did, without spilling a drop. I dumped my faux-airman jacket along with woolly hat and Gap bag behind a chair against the wall, giving John his card I’d appropriated in case he, on meeting adverse circumstances on the way, did dump it with his present of a diary in a bin, for him to give it himself to Quentin. It was of Delboy that Quentin positioned prominently on a shelf. I directed the pouring of the champagne at an angle down the side of glasses to lessen foaming. Yasmeen, Myling, John and I toasted him a happy birthday. Quentin pointed to two packets of chips I could eat that were gluten-free but to beware of others contaminating the dips I didn’t bother checking were gluten-free or not. Blue-haired Beehive joined us from upstairs, asking who’d brought the cake on the table. Me. I asked if she knew John’s history. She said not and I didn’t go into it. I poured myself some more champagne. Myling was going to deny herself a fill-up but soon changed her mind.
Through the door came a man with a skin-tight black cap of hair I recognised once my eye lowered to his creased features as Gareth who I like and meet infrequently at Q’s dos. He said I’d met his daughter, Naomi, at an early one. He’s loquacious. More so is Dan who struck me as very tall in his very long, accentuating frock-coat and ruffled shirt, more than about six three I reckoned. Between that and four he was to say. “Is that Mark Samuels?” I asked. “Indeed it is, John,” he replied. “Dan always brings something for me to eat. What’ve you brought me?” “Nothing.” Quentin pointed to the crisps that he, however, had. I poured myself a prosecco and sat on the sofa at the window by Dan on a chair. “David’s fatter,” I observed as he, another I meet at Quentin’s occasions, came into the room; and he does a lot of cycling too. Since he was late arriving, somebody asked had he come far. From another part of Hackney.
Seated centrally on the chair by my coat etc, with a pile of books to hand on the table beside him, Quentin meticulously dilated on the form the symposium would take, divided like Gaul into three parts, the first on the monstrosities of notorious cooks, not great chefs, he expatiated because someone who’d taken a patent out on the phrase threatened to sue if ‘great chefs’ were used and had won a previous case on an equally common phrase so they’d gone, I think he was speaking as a publisher, for ‘notorious cooks’, which I thought better, more “sonant,” I said. I’d avoided ‘consonant’ but had no idea what word I was ineffectually grappling for. “In Richmond there’s a shop called Tea Pot that was sued by Germans but they lost.” [Tea Box, for the like logo. Ed] ‘Euphonium’ I thought was said as I pondered what word I’d meant, though it may have been ‘symposium’. [‘Euthymus’, ed] “Maybe I meant ‘euphonious’.” It sounded better! Anybody who hadn’t bought him a present could buy a book, Quentin said. After his reading of two amusingly monstrous poems, he asked me if I’d anything to read. “Yes, but John’s banned it,” to avoid embarrassment. “It’s what I call a flash faction of a dramatic incident between us at the door in the morning the day after his visit. I have blogged it.” Quentin nodded. John’s face was vermilion and stayed so. “John has a poem, a short one. He won an accolade for a collage of his poems in a competition,” the provenance of which I elided. “Tell them of your accolade, John,” who did, also omitting with whom he’d competed to win first prize. He also wrote plays. He apologised in advance his poem was rhythmically rap-like. He didn’t stand up nor project but on the other side of the room I could hear and appreciate the poem’s well-scanned distillation of the diversity of sights, ending with a police car’s flashing light on any night out in London.
A young man plumped down beside me on the sofa whose name I thought was Carson, which I subsequently amended to Carsend on correction, for my diary, and a girl, Marloes, with a papilla on her right cheek, shortly followed after and stood nearby. I thought from the ‘loes’ she might be Dutch. German, the pair of them, presumably flatmates of Beehive who derived her name, she’d explained, from school presumably because she was thought to backcomb it like the wee hairies of Glasgow.
Half the room went for a smoke and a vape on a balcony, including David who did neither. Beehive took the cake to the kitchen to be cut, as I thought into twelve pieces, conveniently, since I’d counted twelve people there. Beehive said the packet stipulated fourteen. [It does. Ed] I said that’d be awkward since after it was cut in two it’d be difficult to divide each half into seven bits whereas three a quarter was easier. I left her quartering, taking a chair by the room door. Quentin explained that the break wasn’t for tea, which was the subject of the next part of the reading, but we could have tea too. I had a cup with milk and no sugar I think Gareth brought me. Beehive distributed the cake. Two pieces were left. I tried a red wine but didn’t like it and left the all but full glass on the table. Dan from the other side of the room was saying he’d been put back a year on his course because the academic running it died. “Couldn’t you get another near-corpse? They’re all wearing beards,” I realised on seeing a constellation of four there: Mark, David and Dan with Carsend making up the scrappier fourth. “Except the women,” Myling, left side of me, said what would’ve been my follow-up line. “It’ll be topknots next,” except for Mark, obviously. Myling thought I meant her who, now I looked, was sporting a plume. I was finding their conformity to a prevalent convention a little odd for literati. I don’t think Gareth had one though hard to discern whether he had or not. If he had it was of the merest. Quentin had greying ringlets and sideboards but no beard. Dan shouted across the room, “John’s brutally honest.” “Why ‘brutally’?” From farthest left Yasmeen throughout was making a string of laconic comments I enjoyed. She and Myling took pains to ensure I got the name of the latest entrant right, for my diary. I got that it was short for Rebecca, once she herself gave the name it was nicked from, but why not ‘Reb’ then? Why ‘Rebs’? Why, Rebs? It was what her parents called her who disputed between them who had first, her mother she thought. She had two brothers not called very much at all. “Were you the eldest?”
Carsend and Marloes were on the sofa, arms about. I was asked if I was going to blog the party. I didn’t know. I’d have to wait and see. I hadn’t blogged John’s visit on his birthday and day of release because it didn’t interest me to and was in any case a load of undifferentiable talk until he felt me up in the kitchen, and this was of Quentin reading, not even his own writing, it’d be hard to say anything about, though the demarcation into bits would make remembering where things went easier. I was surprised when Carsend I’d only just met indicated he’d been primed I might. I didn’t like the idea I was making him more self-conscious and less able to spontaneously enjoy himself but that wouldn’t deter from doing what I wanted to do if I wanted to. In any case it made no difference to the way his hair stuck out or that he restlessly moved his feet when sitting.
Quentin said he’d read what some Japanese had written in English about tea but if it was going on too long he wouldn’t read it all. Good. He wouldn’t read the Japanese which was in any case only a translation and might pose him difficulties. “Quentin’s Japanese is good,” said Gareth seated beside me on the right. “But yours is better.” “I wouldn’t say that.” “Quentin said it.” Gareth’s effervescence flattened, but I hadn’t said anything wrong. The reading was precious, flowery, like a man investing himself emotionally in what was unimportant, like beer or football, though perhaps to see what he could make out of a little that was itself disconnected from reality, and maybe interesting psychologically of oriental male dissociation and split personality. When I made a commenting sound which made the audience laugh, Quentin turned to smile at me before resuming his deliberate reading. I continued interjecting until, after laughing, Gareth turned on his seat next to me, raised an admonitory forefinger and said, “Ssh!” I shushed. He himself then played up! I watched a magpie on the balcony opposite and an old woman in a headscarf removing her shoes before going in and almost missed the best line, ‘but enough of all this sentimentality,’ which evoked laughter. ‘Sentimentality’ wasn’t the right word for it. [There was a third part of the reading which has apparently sunk into oblivion or this writer had. Ed]
Yasmeen gathered herself to leave and to let her out Gareth did a quick shift. Red wine flowed onto the table, but not the floor, that he was blaming on Yasmeen’s bag which I exonerated, its being on her opposite shoulder. “It was your bum knocked against the table,” I put the blame where it belonged until Myling, pretty as ever, said, “It was John’s drink.” “I always get the blame!” She was leaving with Yasmeen who said Folkestone was only fifty minutes from King’s X. Gareth started mopping up but Beehive did most of it.
“Have John and Gareth met before?” I asked Quentin; “they think they have.” “No, but if that’s what they think…,” he shrugged.
“What’s that?” Gareth continually had a white thing at the corner of his mouth. It was for his roll-ups. “A roach,” I concluded. “A tip,” he punctiliously corrected to avoid invidious imputation. From his talking I picked on a ‘too’ as sounding almost Scots: ‘tooo’. Gareth explained as the only Welshman in the village he was finding himself, not consciously, lengthening his vowels whereas in Cardiff they’d be clipped to a ‘ti’. I wasn’t paying any attention how we were getting to where we were going, which turned out to be a gastropub where we were booked to eat before eight when the kitchen closed. I sat at the outside end of the two tables pushed together while Quentin sat on the inside, Beehive beside him opposite John, beside me. “My two publishers,” I declared to John of Quentin, and Dan, who published my poems, “three of them.” Mark, other side Dan, had something to do with it but it was mainly Dan. David, opposite Mark, was also a publisher but hadn’t published anything of mine.
Gareth asked what I wanted to drink. “I’ll come with you and pay with my card.” I hadn’t brought much money. Gareth wasn’t having that; it was his round. “I’ll have a gluten-free beer if they have it.” Gareth came back, “They have it but have run out.” He bought me a whole pint of cider. I poked my head in towards the middle of the table to be able to see Gareth at the far end of the other table on my side talking ebulliently across it to David. I was missing all that.
I went up to say we were ready to order, ignoring the sourpuss who’d been pushing for it. The menu had items marked GF. “You do know,” said Beehive, “the beer-battered ‘fish’ isn’t fish.” David had a platter of meat, a moment there, then gone for ever. The waiter said he’d bring me another beer-battered fish; one of three oblongs had dropped off. “Where?” “There,” he pointed without looking to the floor, passing where it lay. I’d’ve put it back on my plate and eaten it, though maybe not here where were a lot of strangers’ treading feet. John had the same as me. The battered fish was tofu, the texture not unlike cod. There was almost too much, but I persevered with it and the whole pint, reducing the quantity of food a little. Beehive tried a bit from my fork, as did Quentin who deprecated it as tasteless. “He’s a vegetarian,” I told John, “on principle, not because it’d do him any harm otherwise. I’ve made mistakes cooking in the fat residue from meat as cooks do and he’s eaten it.” As if to exemplify, Quentin found out the burger he was eating was meat. Another waiter came with the correct order and was taking away the mistake when Quentin apologetically expounded a willingness to eat the meat, already replaced, because what was important was that food should not be wasted, as Beehive more clearly amplified. The waiter hesitated. He was just going to bin the mistake anyway, so left it for them on the table. I wondered if there was an irony in their having in all good faith secured three meals instead of two but couldn’t quite make it.
John and Beehive were exchanging mental problems. I hadn’t known she had any and wasn’t sure I wanted to know if I couldn’t do anything to help and didn’t think I could. Our relationship had so far been superficial and the assumption on that level is that everybody’s okay. Beehive said she kept a lookout, for signs was implied. I said when I was ill I didn’t always know I was. She agreed but had factored that in. Assuming what they were discussing was depression, I thought it might level off with age, that age alleviated it, because I was generally happy now. When I’d been depressed, no one came near me till it lifted. There was nothing they could do about it anyway. I didn’t know about euphoria. [He does; he wasn’t remembering. Ed] “You were constrained last time.” “Was I?” Beehive didn’t think she had been. [She hadn’t. He was remembering as ‘last time’ the last party time, not the last time she and Quentin had called in on him. Ed] “Yes. You sat at the edge of the table and didn’t move much.”
Quentin was telling Dan about a Latin course he was taking. “I knew you were evincing an interest in Latin. Are you taking Greek too?” He was thinking of it. “You’re the linguist. I’m not.” He was doing Latin for the philosophy. “You’ll have to do Greek for that. The Romans didn’t do philosophy.” The only Roman who did that came to mind was Cicero and his was derivative. “The Stoics,” Quentin cited, smiling. They were Greeks. I didn’t understand how Quentin could be associating philosophy with Latin. He had my Plotinus who I was pretty certain had written in Greek. Porphyry certainly had. He’d realise.
Gareth came back from the toilet. “Was there a hole in the wall?” “You’ve always been after me,” he flattered himself. It did diminish him but I wasn’t inclined to put him down.
I asked our original waiter, shorter than me, if I might pay separately for me and John with my card, which isn’t contactless. I stood up to extract change from the tiny pocket for it above the bigger right pocket of my jeans I’d bought the day before and was wearing in. He too had bought jeans day before. “Wait!” I extracted all the change to give him it, about £4 odds I think, to have nothing for John should he get into difficulties. I’d complete confidence he’d manage.
The rest were settling up the bill with money and Quentin was perturbed he had none on him. Gareth was standing, holding aloft in his left hand two separate £20 notes. He wasn’t best pleased but knew he’d get his money back.
It was nine. John was going. I could stay on if I liked but I would have to leave not long after. Somebody was on the phone to Quentin, about to join us and I’d’ve liked to find out who but I felt or sensed I wasn’t there for that. I asked Beehive how to get back to Haggerston. She said to turn left and follow the canal. I hugged Dan. Mark was attempting to rise. I hugged his head and kissed his bald pate. I must’ve hugged a standing Gareth. As we were leaving, I turned, reverting to the hole-in-the-wall joke. Gareth, seated again, said he’d kept me dangling. “Yes, and you’re still keeping me dangling.” We left on a laugh.
John refused to follow a canal and turned right, immediately launching into not wanting Quentin to think he’d stolen his wallet. He was sitting on the floor beside the chair. “I wouldn’t do that!” “It’s probably been misplaced.” I asked whoever we came across the way to the nearest overground station, as did John, till I spotted signs pointing to London Fields. John, whose eyesight’s poor, was still asking and being misdirected. They hide these stations. Despite John I saw a sign indicative of a station and headed for it. It was Overground and all overground lines connect but the only name on the diagram for this one I recognised was Hackney. I took the platform for that, one stop down. John, not convinced my deduction was correct, was panicking. He separated himself and stood, back turned. “John, it’s only nine twenty. You’ve one hour and forty minutes to get back before curfew.” There are always alternatives in London. If he didn’t, he’d be turfed back to prison, he said. I doubted that. He reverted to his other worry, that Quentin would blame him for stealing his wallet, he, John, being the only criminal in the room. “You don’t know that. I know someone else who was harbouring a fugitive.” “Who?” “Me.”
At Hackney Downs there’s an interminable walkway to Hackney Central John wasn’t convinced was going to where we’d want to get to because signs read ‘at the end of platform 2’ at Downs and ‘at the end of platform 1’ at Central, where it was. “You made the right decision not to go by the canal. We’re on the Richmond line.” He needed to pee and did through the railings of a space abutting the platform and encouraged me to do the same. “I’m not doing that. It’s infra dig. Somebody might use the lift,” which opened onto that space. “I don’t know why Quentin did that,” the reading, John said. “It’s just Quentin.”
The train boomed and John explained, twice, how that was air pressure caused by rain over time washing ballast from the tracks. In our segment sitting opposite and down was probably a bothered Muslim I thought might not like what he saw but had to put up with it because this was London. He moved off down the train. John started making up to me, his knee, his side pressing up against. “What about the homophobic Muslims?” I teased. “I don’t care about Muslims.” He hadn’t repeated the ‘homophobic’, probably assumed. “Neither do I.” I resisted the want to wipe the wet away. He just wanted to come home and hug me in bed, that’s all, he said. He couldn’t and get back to the bail hostel in half an hour. He got out at Kew. I continued home, the trains still not running.