What friends are for

The lift said “Sixth Floor.” I walked along the corridor in the neon light which always reminded me of a Travelodge. I hadn’t been here for ages. I hoped Robert would be alone. It would be awkward otherwise. But let’s face it, it was going to be awkward anyway.

I got to his flat. I didn’t have the key any more so I would have to knock. I hoped he would be awake. Would he answer the door? I’d tail-gated into the foyer behind a neighbour so I hadn’t buzzed up. I knew he didn’t like surprises like that, but at least this way I would get to see him face to face. The worst that could happen would be him telling me to fuck off.

I knocked. Silence. Then the pat of feet inside. The spyglass in the door darkened. This was it. He knew it was me now. The door opened, the chain still on and visible in the gap. His face sagged, his eyes screwed up against the light from the corridor.

“Hi.” I said. “Can I come in?”

He shut the door. He hesitated, then undid the chain and opened it again. He was wearing Calvin Klein pyjamas and bare feet. The smell of lasagne reached me on the warm draft from inside the flat. Tonight’s dinner and always cooked from fresh.

He sighed. “Yes. You can come in I suppose… Let’s go in the living room.” He stepped aside to let me in.

I stopped just inside the door. “Surprised to see me?”

He shook his head. “Only you would turn up unannounced at this time of night, so not really, no.”

“Sorry… Is this a bad time?”

“If you mean is there anyone else here?… No.”

How did he always seem to know what I was thinking? He shut the door and we went along the hallway past his bedroom.

I saw we were not alone. “Wow! You’ve got a cat! Amazing!” I said, as I walked into the living room. Thank God the fire was on.

Robert looked down. “Yes he was Dave’s. I look after him now.”

The cat jumped onto the sofa next to me, tail up and sniffed my jeans pocket.

“I love cats.” I stroked the black velvet-soft head. “What’s his name?”

“Coriander… after his eyes. Black coffee?” he smiled for the first time.

“How did you guess?” I smiled back.

“How could I forget?” Robert went into the kitchen. We could hear him opening the fridge door and running the tap.

Coriander settled on the sofa and looked up. “So. How do you know Robert?” he asked.

“Long story. Let’s say we were friends once. Then more than friends for a bit. I haven’t seen him for ages.”

“Oh, so you’re another of his waifs and strays then.”

“You could say that, yes.” I looked into the acid-green eyes and smiled.

“And what are you after?” said Coriander.

I looked away and out of the window. Cheeky little bastard. “Nothing! I just came over for a catch up innit.”

“Yeah, right.”

I turned back. “I could ask you the same question Corry.”

“It’s Coriander.” The cat dug his claws skilfully into my thigh, just far enough to penetrate the denim and make contact with the flesh underneath. “What do you mean? Ask me what question?”

“What are you doing here? What are you after?” I did my arching- eyebrows thing.

Coriander detached a paw from the denim and licked it gently like a cowboy blowing smoke from the muzzle of a gun. “Honestly?… Dave was off his trolley all day and night, having random people round all the time. He brought me here one weekend when he went away. I’ve been here ever since. Robert likes me, it’s warm here, there’s food and water. He doesn’t bother me much”.

I looked down at my leaking trainers; the dirt on the bottoms of my jeans; the battered bag at my feet. The cat was eyeing me up, ears back, tail swishing.

“Oi! You can stop looking at me like that. You’re no better than I am you little fucker.” I said.

“Don’t think you’re going to be moving in here mate. Robert might have fallen for your crap in the past, but things are different now. He’s got me for a start.”

Shit. Was it that obvious? “We’ll see.” I pushed the cat off the sofa as Robert came back in with the coffee.

“I hope he isn’t bothering you. He can be a bit full-on sometimes.” he said.

“No, no. Coriander and me were getting on just fine weren’t we little fella?” I winked at the cat.

Coriander turned his back to me, sat on the carpet, and licked the other paw.

Robert sat down next to me. “Black coffee, with a little cold water in it…. I’ve missed you.”

“I missed you too man.” I did my looking-up-open-eyed thing. He always was a sucker for a pretty face. Especially mine.

Our lips brushed each other. My hand was on his thigh. The cat flap slammed shut behind Coriander as he went into the garden.

“Well that’s told us!” Robert said laughing.

“A bloke on the TV said that cats and dogs can sense all kinds of things around them. You know. Like ghosts and shit.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true. They know when there’s tension in the air that’s for certain.”

“Sorry. That’s probably me that’s upset him.”

“No don’t worry. He is a bit edgy, that’s all. Who can blame him after that upbringing?” He smiled again.

I drank some coffee. It was a treat to have the real stuff. Robert never used instant. In the distance a siren whooped.

“So… What have you been up to?” Robert said.

“Oh, same old same old.” I looked out of the window again, trying hard to hide my raw eyes. My cheeks felt damp when I put my hands up to cover my face.

“Come on love. I can see you’re not OK. What’s been going on?”

Right there – that was the reason I had come to him. After everything that had happened, and despite all my fears, he still cared about me. There wasn’t anyone else, family or friends who I could rely on like this. I knew I didn’t deserve it from him either. Why was I such a twat? I couldn’t let him see me crying now. I swallowed hard, trying to push it all back inside. But it wanted to come out and there was nothing I could do about it. This was not how I had planned the conversation.

He put his arm round my shoulders. “Oh sweetheart. It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Why was he so lovely? Why was he letting me back in? Come on. You’ve got him where you want him. Ask him! Ask him! ASK HIM!

No.

“Look… Sorry, “I said. “Maybe I should go. I don’t want to lay all this on you. After all this time. You must think I am such a piss-taker. I’ll go.” I picked up my courier bag and shifted forward on the sofa.

His arm tightened round me. “No, It’s OK. Stay where you are. Do you really think I am going to let you go back out there in that state?”

“Maybe you should. You’ve got Coriander now. You really don’t need me back in your life.”

“Maybe. But what are friends for? Stay the night, you look exhausted. Let’s talk about it all over breakfast tomorrow. Then we can decide what to do, OK?”

And that was it. As easy as that. The past was forgotten, he didn’t care about it. I wanted to tell him everything but he kept saying he just wanted to talk about the future.

I did want to tell him. Really, I did.

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