First thing she did was ruffle my hair, that incorrigible Yankee dickhead. I’d been extra careful that morning to get it just right. Now I was a mop-end scarecrow once again, angel-pube loofa head. God damn. I’d been thinking about how cool my entrance would be all the way there: I’d sweep up beside her, unseen, and I’d mutter some obscure literary reference, some fantastic quippy masterclass in British understatement – but no. She ruffled my hair, and after a year apart the first thing that escaped my mouth was something like:
Imagine how vexed Henry M Stanley would have been if he’d had “Dr Livingstone, I presume,” planned in his head for days ahead of their meeting, and when they finally met Livingstone just grabbed him in a headlock and knuckled his hair to candyfloss.
I couldn’t help but smile. She’d not changed a bit.
We hugged, beaming. Annie looked exactly the same, I thought, except maybe for a few new freckles. Shorter hair but still thick as ever – unlike my own. Black garb, boots, chains, gait filled with slacker bravado, like a musketeer on his day off.
For reasons I couldn’t figure out at the time, I found it hard to look her in the eye as we left the airport. I’m often that way. Maybe it’s because there’s always so much information to be read there – and a part of me was afraid of what I’d find. Were we still best buds? Did she think I’d aged? Could she sense everything that’d happened since we last met? The quiet, the sadness, the work, the changes? Did the sight of me disappoint her – depress her? Was I still as bold and interesting as I was when we first met, seven years ago on a summer evening? Was I – god forbid – still cool?
To avoid all of these questions I dodged her gaze and instead occupied myself with marching away in search of a bar – a drink would settle us in, stem the surrealism of reunion. Annie wheeled her suitcase along behind me, getting it stuck on things and flipping it onto its back every time she rolled it over even the most infinitesimal of bumps, cursing in that accent that cuts so cleanly across the din of all others. My old mate.
It was a rainy day in Manchester, and I apologised for the greyness.
“Don’t worry boys,” – so ‘boys’ was still in use, apparently – “I like it. It’s nice to get a break from all that sun in California, honestly. It’s been so hot dude. My tits are like permanently sweaty, I hate it.”
The second we left the airport for the train platform, we each pulled out a vape in perfect unison, and burst out laughing. Unified in bad habits.
I was shy to talk on the train, because I’d forgotten how little filter Annie has: casually detailing a BDSM pornography video she’d scored the music for a few months before. It’d been a long time since I’d been around anybody who spoke so candidly, so viscerally about sex. I didn’t know how to react; I didn’t want to say nothing and appear rude or uninterested, but I also didn’t want to extend the conversation and risk her going into more detail within earshot of the other commuters, so in a dainty English voice I said:
“Oh, goodness me.”
It made her laugh, just as it always has.
Off the train in the city centre we headed to Charlie’s place to drop our bags off for the day, and Annie played with Charlie’s little golden puppy, Wilma. It’s always funny to see her vampiric demeanour melt into high pitched giggles and sighs when she sees a small animal.
We found a pub – some old man place that opened up onto the street. It’d been foggy that morning, a ghostly train ride to the airport, but the skies had cleared and there were patches of blue high above. The barmaid poured us two pints and asked where Annie was from, and we sat in the open window of the pub and watched people pass. I looked at Annie properly for the first time, and caught her doing the same thing – and I could see in her eyes that yes, I probably did look a bit older, but that it was okay. We discussed the wrinkles we perceived on our own faces, told each other we had nothing to worry about. We were 22 and 24 when we met – babies. Now Annie’s 28 and I’m 30. Weird, yes, but also nice. I was always scared of getting older, but until I turned 30 it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be alone for the ride. There’s comfort in friends.
We drank and talked a long time. I told her about Perfume, the book I’d just finished reading, because it’s macabre and twisted and she loves all that stuff. We talked about how we were both living at home for the time being, and how it wasn’t what we wanted but we didn’t have a lot of choice. We talked about our professions, and how times are strange for people trying to make a living creatively, and we talked about the compromises we’d both had to begin making.
Ani talks like a cattle prod. I found myself smiling at her turns of phrase, even if the topic – our artistic futures – was bleak. I do this a lot when she talks: zone out, wondering where the hell she gets her vocabulary from, and then she accuses me of not listening, worries I find her boring. She’s not boring, ever.
We went for food in Mackie Mayor, a hipster food hall that I’d thought would impress her, but it turned out I’d taken her two years ago and just forgotten. We had another beer, and then, because I didn’t know what else to do – museums were out of the question, nobody wants to wander an art gallery after a 7-hour flight – we went to sit in Cotton Field Park by the canal with a bottle of wine. Annie’s accent turned heads. A middle aged man in a tracksuit kept staring over, and I kept an eye on him, wary of his intentions, until finally he called out with a smile:
“Where you from?”
“Oh, um, America,” said Annie, raising her wine bottle in salutation. “The—the US.”
She stammers when she’s shy: talks too fast and too loud and gets tangled up in her words. It’s endearing. I’m the opposite: until I feel sure of myself I speak soft and low; I ask a lot of questions to avoid having to talk, and if they use a phrase I find interesting I‘ll repeat it back to them. No idea whether this is endearing or not; I always worry I come across as snarky or irreverent, when in fact I’m just panicking that people won’t like me.
“America! I am from Russia,” said the man, in an accent to match. “I live here now twenty years. I hear your accent, I like it. Very nice to meet you!”
We waved goodbye to the man as he left, and we finished the wine and the vapes and watched puppies come and go and little white geese slip by on the water. We picked our bags up from Charlie’s after – a good sight drunker than we had been several hours earlier – and took our bags to our cheap hotel; a twin room that was so small you could touch all four walls at once.
We had dinner at a fancy pasta place, but they were fully booked so we were placed on a table alongside a father and his two daughters, both of whom were in their mid-to-late twenties and held the sort of casual, effortless beauty that makes a man want to jump off a roof. Annie and I ordered a litre of wine, which was a stupid amount of wine to order, and by the time we finished it, purple lipped, we were the only diners left in the place. And we talked about many things and laughed and rolled around in our seats a lot, and we spilled things, and I wondered when I last laughed so freely.
We hit the town: a blur of interesting bars, Playboy tits and sepia pornography looped on VHS; Annie made me try a Manhattan and I hated every sip, and we entered a gimmicky pub done up like a Blockbuster and they had porn in the back too and we discussed pubic hair and party tricks: I showed Annie how to squat low on one leg, and she showed me the double joint in her thumb and how she can fold it behind her hand, and in the next bar, some punky pub, we flipped beer mats and caught them and talked with a drunken girl in a red harrington who let me try it on, which seemed very funny at the time, and she told us she was the manager of an Indian restaurant in town and that if we swung by tomorrow she’d give us a discount.
I don’t know what time we got back to the hotel, but eventually we said goodnight to one another across the 3-inch gap between our beds, and lay there a while in the half-dark of the city, chatting on our backs like Ernie and Bert. We had a long fortnight ahead: Annie would play shows in Manchester, Bristol and Paris, with a few days of ‘rest’ in Lisbon in between – and of course, I’d be along for the whole thing, cheering on my pal, dancing like a dad.