Outside the underground station, everything and nothing like the Ladbroke Grove of his memories, Craig realised he hadn’t told Drake about the beard. He sighed at the oversight, something else he’d done wrong that day, bowing his head towards the pavement. It had taken a long time to get into Paddington, partly because he had errands to run, partly because that forced him to catch a later train, mostly, he admitted as he circled on one spot, cold hands pushed deep into blazer pockets, because he’d been putting the whole thing off, using the distractions as an excuse, a deeper part of him scared of what he might find. Laura thought it was a good idea, saying she could look after Toby and Jake well enough for a few hours, although he felt guilty about that too. Leaving them at the station he couldn’t help but note the tiredness in her eyes and the unbrushed hair that fell to her shoulders, limp as string.
‘Damn bruv,’ Drake said, voice muffled. ‘Damn.’
‘How are you?’ he mumbled, glad when Drake didn’t answer, knowing his penchant for rhetorical questions, comfort in old habits. They let each other go. Drake stepped back and looked him over like a proud grandparent.
‘Man’s got a beard an everyting…’
‘I didn’t think you’d recognise me.’
Looking at the shadow of the Lazerdrome as he said it.
‘How’m I not gonna recognise you, man looks the same.’
‘It’s only the beard.’
‘Safe…’ Stroking the thick hair beneath his chin, feeling the weight of that one word on his tongue. ‘And you, you still look twenty-odd.’
‘I wish…’ Drake was beaming. ‘Come we go… Any place you’re feelin?’
They began to walk, the wrong way for the first location conjured from his memory, but he didn’t care, he felt so good, nerves gone.
‘Ah, they shut dat shit down time ago. Come we go Inn On the Green, yeah?’
‘The old pool hall? Over Portobello Fitness centre, by the Green?’
‘Yes… Yeah… Sounds good…’
They sat on the balcony overlooking Portobello Green, erect pints bubbling on a precarious table with spindly legs as weak as a foal. Inside, his pack of well-wishers fanned across the bar like a magician’s hand of cards, backs turned so he couldn’t read faces. Drake was still smiling, his grin looking much the same, perfect apart from a crooked tooth stained rain cloud grey. Craig eased back in his chair, testing for give, relaxing as it took his weight. He reached for his pint, knocked back gulps.
‘So what’s gwaanin man?’
‘Just doing what I have to, you know.’
‘Your wife sounds lovely.’
‘Yeah thanks…’ Another gulp, swallow. ‘Yours too…’
‘Yeah, you know…’ Drake turning side on, eyes cast over the Green. ‘How long you bin married?’
‘Enjoy bein a paps?’
‘Best feeling in the world.’
Nodding, reassuring each other.
‘Got three boys myself, little terrors. You remember Kaylan right, my oldest?’
‘Yeah course, from when I used to babysit. How is he?
‘Seventeen.’ Drake gauging his reaction. ‘Man’s beard look like yours.’
‘You’re kidding me.’
‘Swear down.’ Drake took a sip of his own pint, gasped and grinned wider. ‘You have to meet em all. His brothers are twelve and ten. They’re good kids bruv, believe.’
‘I can’t believe Kaylan’s seventeen. What happened to the time?’
‘We’re old now bruv, that’s what happened. Dem yout’s live a different world, dealin wid shit you wouldn’t believe.’
‘Makes me glad to be down in Lewes,’ he said, instantly regretting it. A flash of surprise darkened Drake’s features like a cloud passing before the sun. Craig found it hard to forget once the light was back.
‘How’s business treating you?’
Not meeting his eye, scaring him further.
‘Oh good, good…’
‘Saw that new ting, Vintage Racers… The boys were killin me for it… Forty pound a piece blud, what’s goin on wid dat?’
‘Tried to drive like dat on the way home, thought I’d impress the kids. Got tugged goin down Notting Hill.’
‘They were. Gave me two points, six month ban.’
‘Just my luck innit?’ Drake had the good grace to look amused, even if he wasn’t ashamed. ‘So what bruv, you can’t bring man in?’
‘Well…’ Feeling his heart plummet, thinking already, even though he knew what Laura would say considering he was always giving games away; sometimes freebies for Toby, sometimes for his friends, a lot of the time for the fathers of Toby’s friends. He felt bad once again, irritated by his guilt. ‘I suppose I could put something in the post…’
‘Yeah… That would be cool…’ Drake was turning his head from left to right, scanning the full tables around them like a Cold War spy, Craig all of a sudden guessing the real reason for his phone call, remembering why he’d been so scared when Laura passed on his message, knowing why he hadn’t picked up the phone until she pestered him for days on end. It was that foreseen look in Drake’s eye that had stopped him, as if they were colleagues involved some great conspiracy. All the way from Lewes to London he’d wished things might have changed, but they never did in places like these, it just kept the wheels turning and the people running in place, panting with the effort of staying upright.
‘What’s on your mind Drake?’
‘Know me too well still, innit bruv…’
Craig’s laugh was bitter, the taste of it sharp in his mouth.
‘It’s all right, it’s all right…’ Drake was saying, still not looking him in the eye. ‘I was thinkin maybe I had a little idea you could use… We could work on it together you know, me an you… Lissen dis yeah, jus lissen one minute… I was watchin the youts by my yard play GTA and I was like, yeah man, dere ain nuttin representin dem you know… So you could ave like, a game set in the ends where mans is on the estate, an he’s gotta shot tings on the other side a town right, like in a nex code where man like him not supposed to go, but it’s bait cos dem man don’t like it yeah; den feds are on his case, and the olders don’t like what man’s dealin wid so he’s gotta dodge alla dem man and get the work to dis nex ends on the ovva side a town… An while he does dat he’s got side missions innit, his girl, his mum, beef his boys get him into… I ain really thought it out proper, but I jus wanted to run it by you, see what man thinks…’
And the worst thing about that whole conversation, the thing that stung him most, wasn’t his thoughts that it was the worst pitch he’d heard in all his years of developing; or that he didn’t understand fifty percent of what Drake was saying because the slang had changed, of course it had; but despite his disgust, driven by his guilt, he found himself nodding in all the right places, saying how good the idea was, that it was something he could use, even as he mentally dismissed his awful sounding game, the visit home, the dialling of Drake’s number, even the possibility of seeing his former best friend again.
Later they were back on the streets, a bitter wind blowing through his winter clothing, copper leaves chasing at their feet like a dog trying to catch its own tail, Drake walking head down, talking fast. Craig didn’t know why he’d agreed when he felt so bad, melancholy sucking the words right out of him, seemingly transposing them into Drake’s mouth, making his jaws flap and sentences tumble onto the pavement before them. There was no reason to follow, no need, and yet Craig took right turns and lefts, sighting houses that had previously been squats and crackhouses, but were now penthouse apartments, studios, gated communities. Drake bowed his head and led him further off the main road, away from the sirens and take aways until they entered the estate he remembered, chalky walls and pententiary landings, a raw wind howling through long corridors, pushing him from behind as if forcing him not to lag no matter how much he wanted to, making him walk faster.
‘Let’s have a drink an celebrate blud… We’re gonna make history - me an you like old times…’
‘Yes my youts!’
Grunts and groans, flouting their father’s presence.
‘Sit up when I’m chattin to you! Dis ere’s Craig yuh know, the one I was showin you about? Makes dem games you lot are always playing.’
No one even looked in his direction.
‘What’s wrong wiv you man, say hello nuh? Ain you lot got no manners?’
Longer grunts and groans.
‘I give up man, I tell yuh.’ Drake turning on his heel, bumping into Craig, almost sending him flying. ‘Sorry blud; let’s got meet Karen.’
‘Sorry, just checkin out your photos,’ he called back, dutifully following his voice.
‘Craig, this is my fiancee Karen; Karen, my best friend Craig yeah?’
‘Please to meet you,’ she told him. Her grip was light, featherweight, and her dark skin glowed as though it trapped and threw back the light of the room. He thought of Laura; freckles and red spots left by the imprint of his fingers.
‘Yes, and you,’ he said, feeling eyes on him.
‘Sit down, please,’ Karen continued, licking and rolling her joint. Her eyes were large, confident. ‘Make yourself at home.’
‘Well actually, I was just leaving.’
‘You’re not stayin bruv?’
‘I gotta train to catch, sorry mate.’
Craig held out a hand. For a while it hung there, stiff as a broken branch.
‘That’s a shame,’ Karen said, not looking at him. Her voice was level.
‘I thought you was staying,’ Drake muttered, reaching for Craig’s hand and grasping the fingers as though he’d been forced into a pact against his own will.
He walked to the train station alone, nose pointed at the pavement, fists clenched deep in his pockets. Once in a while he wiped at his damp cheeks and told himself the wind was blowing much stronger now the sun had gone. It had to be.