School nights have no meaning until September so we roam, my friend and I, within the boundaries of our Zones 4-5 school bus passes. Brixton is too far, Zone 2. Camden is unimaginable. But out here there is a club above a pub where every Saturday the walls run with snakebite sweat, and where the carpet sucks lecherously at your boots as you lift one foot and then the other to the jangling sound of L7. And where there is live music every night, local bands, free entry.
Perhaps suspecting our age but not caring, or just calculating that I look good for all the Two Dogs my pocket money can stretch to, the bouncer turns the other way as we slink through the door; big boots, short vests, army surplus, fishnet, glitter.
We push to the bar, point at the house vodka, two doubles for a fiver.
There’s a boy, of course, because there always is. But this one is a man; with a job at Our Price, long hair, a guitar. I’ve not followed him here from that club in which we kissed a few weeks ago, and I’ve not carefully cut a picture of him and his band from a tiny feature in the entertainment pages of the local paper, wedged between an advertisement for bingo and review of a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute act. And that clipping certainly isn’t in a broken Doc Martens box in the bottom of my wardrobe, precisely folded and sandwiched neatly between strata of smudgy, Hooch-stained flyers and torn ticket stubs still sticky with ancient beads of Blu Tack.
I’m here for the music, that’s all.
Sliding my coat off my shoulders, I feel the sting of freshly tattooed skin, still carefully Savlonned and wrapped in kitchen roll from two days earlier, when I’d walked in off the street in my tallest shoes, pointed at my chosen badge of adulthood on the wall, and cried solidly through the following thirty minutes. There’s nowhere to leave my coat, so I roll it up and stash it under the cigarette machine, forgetting about it till the end of the night when I will discover someone has left three green Opal Fruits, half a clove cigarette and a bottle of poppers in the pockets.
The place is small and packed. Finding no chairs, we perch on the end of the pool table until it becomes too uncomfortable, then we sit underneath it, bass pulsing and crashing over our heads. On the underside of the table in thick black marker someone has meticulously listed the twenty best bands up to and including the end of December 1993. Other people have added corollaries, footnotes, politely disagreed, suggested alternatives. I reach for the eyeliner in my pocket and make an addendum: Stone Temple Pilots. My friend thinks a while then, crossing out Danzig, substitutes Megadeth. We throw our heads about, dancing cross-legged on the floor, repelling streams of spilt lager, hair tangling, not waiting for the boy in the band.
Boxed in but needing a pee I tug at the cutoffs of the leg nearest me. The owner bends with recognition – a friend-of-a-friend – and hauls me out, carrying me chivalrously on his back through the crowds before dropping me at the stairs to descend into the ladies alone. The walls to the toilets are covered in comic pages, graffitied, replastered, graffitied again, Dennis the Menace with METALLICA written across his jumper, Gnasher sporting an old-school cock in the middle of his forehead. Impatient with the queue and emboldened by drink I pull aside my striped tights and pee forwards into the filthy sink, rubbing more eyeliner into the corners of my eyes, dishevelling my hair, pink stripes on green, on bleached, on black.
On my way back, even though I am not looking, the boy who is a man that I have not come here to see cannot be seen. Condensation, or a thrown drink, or both, drips down my back and in the smoky, soupy air I stand still, disorientated, lost.
Then a voice above the roar and a drink in my hand, and the friend-of-a-friend pulls me by the wrist behind the jukebox and out through the fire exit propped open with crates of brown empties. Leaning against the wall we inhale lungfuls of cold night air, try to work out how we know each other. He teaches me how to drain a bottle of beer in one go by putting a straw in it. I show him my tattoo. He tells me he is joining the army next week. I kiss him, just once, for good luck. The sweat on our skin cools to a chill and, shivering, we dance to the sound of the boy’s band to keep warm, alone, by the bins, round the back of The Cartoon, in Croydon.