Gray’s Anatomy

Harris Pax and Jonni Sood walk down into their favourite pub. The pub sits underground, and in the heat of the first of the hottest summer days of the year, it is a relief to be in the cool. Not for these two the peculiar pleasures of the great new English tradition of the binge drink, nor its companions the angry head, and the sun-burnt naked chest.

The pub, by the way, is called Best Bar None, and there’s not much more you need to know about it, beyond that it’s gloomy and yet paradoxically more friendly than the other pubs on this Southerton high street, and its setting wrestles with the owning brewery’s desire to see it trendy.

The current barman, a stalwart worthy known as Dag, is in residence behind his barricade of beer taps and drip-rests, almost tall enough that he has to dip to see the punters under the glass shelf for the glasses. The shelf, seemingly impractical at this point in time, makes more sense at shift change, when the rest of the staff come in. Almost exclusively stocked by an ever rotating, ever evolving coterie of cute young hipster chicks, for whom the reach for a pint glass or two becomes a feat of midriff-baring loveliness – transforming the perfectly friendly and diversely-styled barmaids into the nearest thing that Southerton has to Suicide Girls for many of the young and indie-fit gentlemen customers.

(For the few old boys who also frequent the place, they are known more simply as “top-totty”, the internet still a mystery to the men who’ve always spent their weekly pittance on grog.)

Allo, chaps – says Dag.

‘Lo, Dag – says Harris Pax.

‘Ullo – says Jonni Sood.

The usual? – Responds Dag.

As Jonni Sood begins to get comfortable, removing the jacket that he put on this morning, when the heavens were still open and it looked like rain all day, Harris Pax looks around, curious.

Yeh, ta, mate – says Jonni Sood, and – I’ll get these.

Harris Pax is giving a courteous and casual wave in the direction of a man being served further up the bar, who is in turn nodding in Harris Pax’s direction.

The man is decked out casual-like, as if a stylish youth, but he is clearly in his fifties, if still quite spry for it. His face is drawn; his hair, going badly from the front, is in a ponytail at the back.

Dag is handing Jonni Sood two pints of cheap-piss-lager, and Jonni Sood, newly furnished in this way, his jacket over his arm, is following Harris Pax, as he makes his way to one of the booths set slightly back from the main bar area. They take their places at the table, Harris Pax on the worn pub bench, Jonni Sood on a loose stool that he already struggles to keep on all four legs, to his companion’s continued amusement and frustration, and they drink.

Oh, man, I’ve needed this all day – says Jonni Sood, taking his first long swig of cold tap beer.

Mmm – says Harris Pax.

The two have long since established a cool rhythm to their drinking sessions, wherein one will drink and listen while the other talks, and then they will swap actions.

So who was that old bloke? – Says Jonni Sood.

Well, there’s a story there, – says Harris Pax, and taking his drinking pal’s sipping silence for attentiveness, he continues – and it goes back a way, to when I first came to Southerton.

Jonni Sood, the younger of the two, is so caught up in the final flush of his twenties that he doesn’t see any issue with the pomp of his friend’s words. Harris Pax is himself only pushing thirty, but the city pubs, even the good ones, are a young person’s playground, and most of the clientele that will start flooding into this place in the next few hours will serve to make even these two hearty young men feel oh so old and wizened.

Harris Pax, in case you were wondering, is certainly the scruffier of the two; his jeans are never quite right, his tee-shirts carry the names of bands from quite some time ago in less then smarmy fashion, and his dirty blond-brown hair is cut as if he has done it himself with a kitchen knife.

Jonni Sood is far the easier to look at of the two – he has thankfully bypassed the dry and grey and drawn middle-class features of his Pakistani father, and cut straight through to the sensual oval features and soulful eyes of his father’s mother in her youth. His posh English mother is evident in every element of his grace and serenity, and in a perverse twist, the smile with which he draws in women is also hers. From his father he gets his intelligence, his ascerbic world-view, and his large nose.

Jonni Sood is dapper and slick, where Harris Pax is sly and inventive, and out of that sort of pairing, stories are made.

Harris Pax talks, and Jonni Sood listens: – That bloke’s name is Gray Darin, and he was one of the first people I met, when very first arrived at Southerton Poly.

Back then I hadn’t yet concreted my theory that people with two first names are not to be trusted, and besides, “Darin” always seemed like more of a made up name then “Darren”. Gray and I, we drifted in and out of each other’s lives, but whenever we met, we were close. We liked to drink, and we liked to talk, and we liked to think about things, and if it was a little more important to Gray that people listened, and thought what he was saying was intelligent, and what he was doing was exciting, it didn’t bother me, because he always seemed so much more vibrant and certain of things than me.

Of course, it never really occurred to me at the time that his desire to be accepted and appreciated was basically a sickness.

Gray and I, we came from very different backgrounds, but we had essentially landed up in the same place in life. We were both sharp, and sociable, and smart. We were both considered tragic underachievers by our lecturers, and later our employers, who always had greater plans for us then we ever did. We both had just enough success with women that we were fairly regularly hard-lucked and heartbroken, and we both needed something that only commoners like Billy Bragg could say to us when we were.

Both of us were considered great fun by our social circles, of which both of us had many, and at the same time, both of us felt like we were on the outside, looking in, most of the time. Neither of us trusted the status quo, or Status Quo, or authority.

But really we were very different.

At this point, Harris Pax picks up his drink, and as he swigs, he looks over in the direction of the bar. The old man isn’t there, but his pint and his paper still are.

Different howso? – Says Jonni Sood.

Well, – says Harris Pax – Gray was from a much worse background. Like I said before, we were both in similar straits… no money, no family supporting us, no assets. No high-paying jobs, no driving licenses.

But whereas my family had always been firmly pushing forward and never quite reaching the middle-classes, the effort leaving us cynical and skint and not all that connected, his were completely broken. He was from some Black Country pit – where I took a little bit of abuse from other kids for wearing flares years out of date, and always being new in town, his problem was that his father had them living in the same dirty pit since he was small. My bullies were always new, so I got to detach myself from them, but his… his were the same ones in his teens that had pushed his head in dog-shit when he was six.

And that was another thing – I was forever being sent to new schools full of better off kids with better clothes and toys, and aside from a couple of scuffles, I had almost constant whispering campaigns to contend with, but where he lived, the kids whispered with bricks. I got the piss ripped out of me mercilessly for volunteering in the school library, but he used to take beatings and shit for every single book he tried to sneak home after school.

My mum and dad didn’t have the first clue of how to compromise what they wanted with what their kids needed, but his dad didn’t even know he was there most of the time. In fact, he didn’t talk about it much, but I think it was pretty much him who made sure that his dad ate and drank and went to pick up his dole, which must have been a hell of a strain on a kid.

So, anyway, while Gray and I, we seemed to be like peas in a pod, the fact was that all this, – at which point Harris Pax waves absently around his head, which Jonni Sood correctly takes to mean that he is indicating Southerton and civilised life at large – it meant a lot more to him then it did to me.

I never thought that I’d see a plus side in our parents moving us around so much when we were kids, but thinking about it now, it meant that I at least didn’t care too much about the people who I didn’t fit in with. I mean, they all ended up seeming so generic – when you’ve lived in so many places and seen the same arseholes show themselves again and again, you stop thinking that it must be you so much, you know? It’s clearly everyone else that’s a cunt.

If you spent your whole life surrounded by the same group of people, even if you were smart enough to know on the surface that they were twats, well, deep down you must wonder if it’s you who is in the wrong, after all.

Then Jonni Sood cuts in, – I guess if you got out from under that, you’d feel like you had a lot to prove…

Exactly – says Harris Pax, and then shifts in his seat, so he can’t see up to the bar any more. He wriggles some money out of his pocket, and passes it across the beer-stained table to his friend. He says – Going up to the bar?

Alright – grins Jonni Sood, happy to stretch his legs, and get where he can look at girls for a few moments.

When he returns, Harris Pax is nestled into the corner of the booth, legs up on the bench, comfy and secure. He wishes to continue post-haste.

Nice one, – he says to the drink, and – Gray still up there?

Uhuh, – says Jonni Sood.

Was there anyone with him? – He asks.

Yeah, a bunch of people standing around him, now, actually. Couple of cute girls in there, actually… all a bit younger then me… – Jonni Sood wrinkles his nose, and continues – … What’s the fascination? Mind you, they are a bit like yuppies out of time, all “Haw haw” and loud like it’s only their voices that people need to hear.

Hm, yeah, I thought I could hear them, – says Harris Pax, and – well, they won’t bother us if they know I’m here.

You see, – he says – they’re the reason that Gray is how Gray is.

What, – asks Jonni Sood – they’re the ones that bullied him? I don’t understand…

No, they are the reason why he’s like he is now. You see, – and Harris Pax isn’t too proud to pause for dramatic effect here… – Gray Darin is almost the same age as I am.

Jonni Sood gives him that “bullshit” look of his, and Harris Pax nods his “seriously” nod.

No way is he younger then fifty – asserts the younger.

Honest to fuck, he’s about a month and a half younger than I am! – Deflects the older.

It’s like this: – says Harris Pax – Around five or six years ago, we met that lot out there. We were on our way back from some festival, and neither of us had enough money left for a train, so we decided to try hitching. This group in a VW van pulled up for us, and it turned out they lived right here in Southerton. There were only four of them in the van, that time, and it was pretty clear right then that even that was affected: These guys were minted, and while the van was grubby enough, the coke and pills that they had with them were strictly out of our price range.

They loved Gray and I, and even at the start, I wondered why… I mean, we talked about the same things that they talked about, and enjoyed doing the same things that they did, but these guys… well, they had to pay for us to come along to everything.

And Gray, I mean, he fucking loved it. Another difference between he and I was that I’ve always been a grinder, sticking out a job with no plan for moving up in the ranks, no matter how much I hate it, because I’m almost obsessively scared of being out of work. I was on benefit for about six months out of Poly, and it made me feel sick. I’ve always hated owing anyone anything, basically.

Gray, on the other hand, struggled to stick a job out for more then a year. It was an amazing cycle to watch, actually: he’d take on some low-level job, like telesales, or something, and he’d attack it frantically, learning everything that he needed to know to excel at the work, working every angle, learning all the hierarchy, and full of plans to take on fast-track schemes and such. And then I wouldn’t see him for a few weeks, and the next time I saw him, he’d be in the pub on his third pint when we turned up after work, and he’d be signing on and doing bar-work again.

It’s sad, really. Neither of us has ever really got it right.

Meanwhile, this group of four that we met in the van, with their jobs as barristers and surveyors and medical students… have you ever noticed how you never actually get to know an actual doctor? Everyone you meet is in training to be one, never actually qualified… this group of four have introduced us into their wider social group, and we’re even more of a novelty in an even bigger arena.

At around that point, it got to be a bit too much for me, and I started to fade into the background a little bit. Stopped accepting offers of free theater tickets or festival trips. I just found the pressure of never being able to pay my way a bit much, you know?

Jonni Sood gives Harris Pax a shit-eating grin at that point, and rattles his wallet. It doesn’t jangle; it rustles. Harris Pax shoots him a look, and continues.

A little later after that, I had some stupid falling out with one of them, and I disappeared off their Christmas lists altogether.

But Gray and I would still chat, when I bumped into him without them. And the stories, oh man – one of them had taken him up to London to some big party, and he’d met some top academic that he’d idolised since his degree, and they’d shared some coke in the toilets. Or he’d gone skiing with them all, although of course, after an abortive first run, he’d retired to the chalet and started drinking expensive spirits.

One of them even let him live in their second property for over a year almost rent free, when he hit a bad patch. That was a really bad patch. Every time I saw him over an almost eighteen month period, he was utterly pissed and rank with fag smoke, midway through the working day.

And I watched all this, and kept wondering when these guys were going to decide enough was enough. This mate of mine, he was basically disintegrating in front of them, and… well, I kept trying to read between the lines of what he was saying while we caught up, to hear some evidence that one or all of them had finally had enough of him, or at least tried to raise him up, help him into their strata. But it didn’t seem to be on the cards, and I didn’t get it. I was starting to understand why he hung around, eager to please, and coddled and kept in spirits. After all, he was being given everything he wanted, even though it was knackering him.

But what did they get out of him? That’s what I couldn’t work out. I mean, before, he was fun, and interesting and…

But now…? Well, these days he’s hardly erudite. And I try not to talk to him if I can help it. He’s just so… twitchy. It freaks me out a bit, to be honest.

Harris Pax rests back on his rested back, and cups his pint like a mug of cocoa, looking out into space. Well, in truth, looking out into a yellowing movie poster, one of many that adorns these walls. He sets the pose of a man whose facts have played out.

But Jonni Sood isn’t one who is content to contend with facts that go nowhere; he thirsts for theory and conjecture, and he says so.

Go on, then: – he says, irritably, – what do you think they get out of him? Do you think they enjoy him being such a state? And what was all that shite about him being younger then he looks, or looking older then he is?

Well, – says Harris Pax, looking wanly at his friend – I honestly don’t have a clue. At first I thought he was just getting ragged round the edges, the way a drunk is prone to do, but then he seemed to shrink a little into himself, like the other sad old piss-heads who wash up in here. And now it’s obvious to me that he doesn’t look like a guy who is killing himself with drink – he looks like any other old alcoholic, that’s been pickled over time. He creaks.

And the other thing, the thing that I reckon might be the key to why they stay close to gray, although that lot, they’re so damn vacuous, despite the smarts and success that they’ve mustered between them, I doubt they even know it, is this…

I think being around Gray makes them younger – Harris Pax says, and if he looks a little uncertain of the sense of his words, it’s because he is.

Well, – responds Jonni Sood, – I could see that before, but look at him now… he’s a fucking wreck. It’s depressing just looking at him…

No, that’s not what I said, – says Harris Pax, – I didn’t say that he makes them feel younger.

What – says Jonni Sood – are you on about?

Well, I don’t know exactly, – responds Harris Pax, – but the thing is, those guys, when we met them that first time, in the van, all those years ago?

Yeah? – says Jonni Sood, because after all, wouldn’t you?

Well, back then, they were in their forties. – says Harris Pax, and even he looks a little chilled.

Oh – says Jonni Sood.

Yeah – says Harris Pax.

They finish their pints slowly, and in silence, listening out for the “Haw haws” to diminish.

Once the coast is clear, they move on to spirits.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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