Billy had recently moved into a bedsit in North Kensington and was still exploring the pubs in the area, when his new neighbour took him to The Ladbroke Arms.
“If you're looking for a local,” the old man had said, “look no further! This is an old fashioned place with kind costumers, great service, and fabulous food. You'll love it.”
Halfway his first cider, Billy knew his neighbour was right. In the back, there was a trendy restaurant which seemed a little too expensive for his taste, but the front part was a standard pub, loaded with locals. The wooden interior created an intimate atmosphere and he felt perfectly at home. He finished his first pint, talked some more to his neighbour and decided to introduce himself to a curvy blonde who was inspecting her make-up in one of the mirrors. With his hands in his pockets he walked up to her, leaned against the wall and asked if he could get her anything.
Her reflection winked at him, and she said: “Maybe some Botox injections in my lips, to plump them up a bit. What do you think?”
“Caithlin!” he exclaimed. “What on earth are you doing here?”
They embraced as if they hadn't seen each other for years. Which was almost true. They had seen each other in the tube occasionally, but they'd never had time for a word. She had no choice now, he told her, and bought her a Snake Bite. The rest of the evening they sat outside in the patio, reminiscing their crazy crush.
“Do you remember that time we got high and we went to the KFC?” she asked.
“Oh my, and we bought this monstrous bucket of fried chicken! And we ate it all!”
“Ugh, I'm getting nauseous just thinking about it!”
“You know that bones kept turning up in my room? I even found one behind the heater when I was moving my stuff out, last month.” An image of Caithlin came back to him, stark naked and covered in greasy chicken. That's when he started calling her Sticky Chicky.
“We spend the whole weekend lying in our own dirt,” she said, “and I was so happy in your boxers and your T-shirt.”
I know that line, he thought. But he couldn't place it. His thoughts swam in a sea of cider. She smiled and got up.
“The same?” she asked, and pointed at his glass, drawing a little circle in the air.
“I'd rather have a lager this time. Just give me what they've got on draught.” She drank a lot faster than him and insisted on buying refills when he wasn't even finished yet. Billy didn't really have too much money on him, the drinks were quite expensive, and they had so much to say to each other that he forgot to resist. When she returned with their fifth drink he had picked a red flower from one of the hanging baskets. She put it in her hair with a little clip.
At eleven fifteen, when they were walking arm in arm down Ladbroke Grove, the flower started sagging.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He had his arm around her waist and felt her leaning heavier on him with every step. “You've had five pints, right?”
“Five pints,” she repeated, “five pints and a couple of shots. You know, tequila. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila. You know... I don't know.”
Billy halted, took hold of both of her shoulders and tried to make eye-contact. Her eyelids drooped and her pupils lolled from one side to another. She really didn't look this drunk when he decided to take her home. He steadied her against the railing of a garden and looked at his watch.
“What are we going to do next?” she asked. Her voice was slow and almost sexy, but a little too wobbly. With his left hand Billy wiped her fringe out of her face and smiled at her. She hadn't changed a bit since they broke up. Well, she finally had her degree in journalism and she was working as a script-writer for the BBC now, but she was still the same blond bird with big boobs, broad hips and a very slim waistline between all that luxury. She was hanging against the fence so nonchalantly, that he understood how he could have overlooked the state she was in earlier.
“I'm going to bring you home, babe,” he said.
“Nooo,” she said, “it's not even three yet! I'm not going home before three! You have to take me to a party!”
“But there is no party. None that I am invited to, anyway.”
“Back to The Ladbroke Arms, then?” she proposed.
“It's eleven thirty, babe,” Billy said. “The pub's closed.”
“Then you have to take me to your place.” She tried to give him a seductive smile and leaned forward to make sure he wouldn't miss it, holding on to one pole with both hands.
“I would, you know,” he began, but didn't finish his sentence. He found that drunk girls tended to be very promiscuous. In fact, there was no stopping them unless he was wasted himself. But they always regretted it the next morning, and they always blamed him for taking advantage. So he had promised himself to never let a drunk woman into his bedsit again. But there's no way he could explain this to Caithlin tonight. Or any other night, for that matter.
“But what?” She was still holding on to the railing and had deep wrinkles in her forehead from looking up at him now.
“But I can't. Some other night, Caithlin. Not today, you're too special. Let me take you to your home instead.”
“No!” She pulled herself up and looked very determined. He laughed and stroked her cheek again. She was so cute, he thought, and he couldn't remember why they ever broke up.
“Tell me, where do you live nowadays?”
“Way too far off, anyway,” she confessed. “I live with my boyfriend, in Camden...”
“Christ,” he said. “You've got a boyfriend?”
She bent her head and hid her face behind her fringe.
“Caithlin...” Billy sighed. “You're getting yourself and me in loads of trouble. Let's get you to the tube quickly.”
“I'd rather take a cab,” she said, “but first I want to do something, like climb a tree, or... or... or a roof!”
“You're potty!” He laughed and put his arm around her waist again. “Fair enough, we'll go for a walk, and who knows what we'll find to climb. What were you doing all the way down here on your own, any way?”
“Can I tell you something?” she asked. He felt her arm around his shoulders clasp him tighter. “I mean, something I haven't told anyone before. Something really personal. And bad.”
With his free hand Billy wiped her fringe out of her face again. “Of course you can.”
“I shouldn't be telling you this, but he... He loves me very much, and he's very sweet. He's a great guy, really dependable, and I do care about him a lot.”
“Things aren't...” She paused and frowned, as if she had trouble reading the autocue. “Things aren't like they were with you.”
“What do you mean?” Billy didn't dare to look at her and counted his steps until she replied. They walked slowly because of their embrace. He got to nine.
“It's like he's not really a person.” Her voice was quiet now, but less insecure. As if she was getting sober, Billy thought. “He never tells me what he wants, what he needs, what he feels. He always agrees with me.”
Billy softly breathed out and pulled her shoulder a little tighter into his armpit.
“In comparison to you he seems so...” She searched for a friendly word. “Boring.”
He sniggered. The cynical little laughter had escaped before he knew it. He regretted it immediately and glanced sideways to see if it had bothered her too, but she just smiled.
“You're just so much more fun. You've got thoughts of your own, and you can get really enthusiastic over things. I really like that, you know, your energy cheers me up.”
“Ditto, my dear,” Billy said. He felt like kissing her on both cheeks, running up and down Ladbroke Grove, laughing like the evil character in a cartoon, picking her up like a doll and taking her home with him.
“This really is a problem,” she said and looked at his smirk. “He wants to marry me.”
“He wants to what?”
“To marry me.”
“You can't do that!” He felt his repressed laughter turn to anger. “What did you say?”
“I didn't tell him yet. But if I can stay with you tonight, I figure he'll get the message, no?”
“Do you see that building?” Captivated by an idea, he hadn't even heard her question. He let go of her waist and pointed down the road.
“You mean the Trellick Tower?” She looked puzzled.
“Exactly. Did you ever go up there? I don't think we can get up the roof, but the view will be great! And it will be as close as we get to climbing a tree, tonight.”
“Is that where you live?”
“Nope. But I do have the keys to Iris' place! You remember, when we were in uni, before I started dating you, I had practically moved in with her. Maybe she was hoping we would get back together, I don't know. Anyway, she never asked her keys back. So, if she's not there, we can go in.”
“Are you sure Iris still lives there?” Caithin asked.
“Well, let's find out!”
They laughed hysterically until they covered each other's mouth with their hands, in order not to attract too much attention.