Tonight I am thinking of the last time that I was in the banshee labyrinth.
It was several years ago, in the early morning hours after my birthday had ended. I cannot remember which birthday – it might have even been my fortieth. We had wandered away far from the bar, into a darkened corridor where there were nests of little stools and tables. There were no other humans to be seen. I had sat down on a stool and here all of my energy had suddenly, swiftly fled, like a nurse abandoning a day release patient. Tori had sat down a little way off, and at a bit of an angle, but she was still faithfully sticking with me. Her face was as private as if she was shut up by herself in a room hundreds of miles away.
We had partied ourselves into a hole. I sat listening to the silence between us, as carefully as if it was music. I had been holding the same glass of beer for over an hour. The third or so unsipped at the bottom might as well have congealed into syrup. From time to time I tried to will myself to raise the glass to my lips, to deliver the final murderous blow, but then I thought about how nice it felt simply holding its weight in my hand.
There had been many more of us when we had started out in the kitchen of my flat, over seven hours earlier. I had a small bag of powder and we had each dipped a moistened finger in. For a while we had waited, and then, bored with the waiting, we had trooped out to the first pub. The sensation released from the vitamins had soon engulfed us like an enormous wave, a wave of freedom and impatience and aimless, joyous energy. Some of us had been picked up by this wave and some of us had been buffeted out of its path.
People are quick to disappear in the muddle when the wave strikes. Some had thought of an ex-girlfriend from several summers ago whose voice might be waiting as normal at the end of the phone. Some had thought agreeably that they might be able to make it into work tomorrow after all, without needing recourse to that discomfiture of pretending to phone in with a stomach upset. Some had fled to childish, private places, to be wrapped up in duvets watching favourite box sets. And some had been dazed by a throbbing despair, the soreness that you feel after surveying sunlit mountaintops and realising that you cannot remotely connect with their beauty.
Once the wave had washed away, Tori and Pablo and I were the only ones still on our feet. Pablo had looked very crafty and he had told me that he was nipping outside the banshee labyrinth for a cigarette. I knew that he was running away. It might have been to get more vitamins, though he typically affects to be disinterested in them these days. I was suddenly worried that I had completely forgotten to assure him that we had enough left over. Or maybe there was a girl – a girl on a dating app – who he had been keeping in the back of his mind as an alternative, extra adventure for tonight. But I knew that he was really running away from us rather than towards anything. He could sense the inevitable melancholy that was already circling us on noiseless paws and weaving ever more flagrantly amongst us.
He had been gone for over an hour now and Tori and I had not uttered a word to each other for nearly as long. I had the anxiety that it was somehow dawn outside – that there was that tinge of awful pink in the sky and that bleak freshness in the air. I gripped my beer glass and shivered at the passing time.
I heard Tori’s voice and it sounded glassy, as if it had been summoned up from the depths of the ocean. “Biggy, we have to do something.” She seemed restlessly afraid that we would be found sitting dead in this corridor by the cleaners. Dried up from inactivity.
A few years ago I might have tried to kick off sexually with Tori. I had not slept since my birthday so it was still, in a way, my birthday, and all boys should be loved on their birthdays. Tori has nonetheless become so familiar to me that I could no more make love to her than I could get down on my knees and devour grass. Behind her glacial femininity, she is, at least to me, tomboyish and sexless. She is also, leaving aside her living arrangements, a person who as a general rule sleeps with any lover only once. In her view, every one night stand is a book read, closed, and put back on the shelf.
I shone my mind around my body like a beam as if to locate the muscles and the nerve endings again. I was amazed to find that I could still steadily lift up my hand. As if moving for the first time in years, I leant forward and put my beer glass on the stone floor.
“I have some vitamins left,” I heard myself say hopefully.
The vitamins were wrapped up in odd little paper twists in my wallet. Lines were out of the question – as was stirring the powder into a drink – because the bouncers stamped around watching everybody in a state of virtual hysteria. Two people couldn’t go into a toilet cubicle together without a bouncer kicking the door down seconds later. In those moments when the bouncers were preoccupied, the tiny twists of paper could be tossed down your throat just like that, where they would disappear weightlessly.
“You take one,” Tori replied. “I am not in the mood. I’ll take one later.”
“I’ll be lonely,” I complained gruffly. “I’ll be on my own.”
“I won’t leave. I will take one. I’d like to walk about and talk to somebody first.”
I could see that she wasn’t going to take one. I became immediately fatalistic about this.
“I’m going outside. I want to smoke as well.”
Amazingly, I had risen to my feet and I was reeling, massively reinvigorated at becoming a walking human being again. I took step after step, as cautiously as though I was a giant on tiptoe, and the corridor glided past with an almost thrilling ease.
So I went outside and left you, Tori, sitting irritably in the corridor.
You venture to the bar, partly to see if it is still there, and yes it is still there. The room is deserted though there is a bored girl remaining forlornly on duty behind the beer taps. She smiles up at you from her phone, happy to see a face and to do something. The bar is sticky and there are thin puddles of beer across it. You ask for a Jägerbomb. The girl has this trick in which the Jäger shot slides smartly down her wrist and she flicks it with her fingertips into the Red Bull. She saves this for small crowds though and she decides that it would be awkward to do it for you alone.
Next you are walking down the corridor of the banshee labyrinth.
There is a tiny stone cell with a DJ playing trance music in it and three Polish men on the dancefloor. The cell sounds like it is fizzing over with this music, as though it is a bottle of over-carbonated soda and the music is the gushing bubbles. The men are bare-chested and they are waving their tee-shirts over their heads. When they see you they whoop and laugh and wave them faster.
An old man slumps over and drapes himself around your shoulders like a towel. He is wearing a tropical sunset shirt and tropical jungle shorts and he had a walrus moustache with the tips dyed, one with purple glitter and the other luminous yellow. He begins to tell you what a crying shame it is. He owns a waterfront apartment in Granton and he has spent the last eight months refurbishing it. It is finally perfect, all creamy and crisp like an uncut cake. There are bright walls, pine flooring, a games room, and a hot tub in the shape of a laughing, lipsticked, ravenous mouth. There is one room – one of several spare bedrooms – that is called “the lion room.” A huge, high-definition photograph of a lion’s head is printed across the wall. It is roughly eighteen foot by ten and coloured as vividly as a sunflower. You will walk into this room and your heart will stop. Oh, but it is such a shame – he has done all this and he has nobody to share it with. He is all alone down by the sea with his empty, immaculately completed rooms.
You laugh and agree that it is a shame.
He eyes you narrowly, rubbing his fingers together in a jokey show of villainous calculation. He says that he knows what sort of girl you are – that girls like you always desire to be fucked by their grandfathers. Well, he promises, if you go back to Granton with him tonight then you will wake up in the morning to be treated like a little princess by her kindly old grandfather.
You are still amused but you are slightly breathless because you tend to be slow-witted in these situations and you realise that you have no immediate rejoinder. You tell him that your own grandfather was never a pervert and that he doesn’t have a moustache dyed with glitter. The old man’s eyes roll wackily and he grins as if to say touché!
Ding ding, round two! The old man fishes in the pocket of his tropical sunset shirt for a tiny plastic envelope of coloured pills. He is breezily unconcerned by the bouncers, giving the impression that they are all his harmless old cronies. He explains to you that if you nibble on just a corner of one of these pills, you will feel as massively exhilarated as a little girl on Christmas morning.
And this grinning old freak seems so innocuous and amusing that you nod along with the story that he is narrating for you both. You tell yourself that you are temporarily strolling down an ominous lane but that you can turn back at any moment.
He proffers a finger with a pill affixed, half trembling, on the end of it.
So much for you. Meanwhile, I am outside trying to talk my way back into the banshee labyrinth. The bouncer is shaking his head firmly and repeating in a bored voice that I should stand aside because I am blocking the entrance. I can read in the levelness of his eyes that he is not going to readmit me – that he had made this decision as soon as I had passed him in the doorway.
I feel very calm and gentle, and I accept the bouncer’s decision good-humouredly, as if it is pleasant news from a faraway country. In truth, I even approve of his judgement. I have made a miscalculation and this has almost led me to make an even more frightening one. Once I was outside the nightclub, and I was deep in my wallet in the search of the twists, I suddenly understood that the effects of the previous vitamins had not yet sufficiently subsided. I had been all the time on an immense high.
Yes, I am high. I bubble under my own skin, submerged in this experience and trying to stand as inconspicuously as possible until I can raise my eyes above the surface again.
I fretfully smoke a cigarette. I want to single out one of the girls smoking outside the hive and talk to her. I scan the available faces, however, and none of them look even within ten years of my own age. I know that I have to do something quickly because I am so scared. It is dawning on me that if I had taken two more of the twists, as I had been fully intending to, then I would be now like one of these inept tyros who you periodically read about. These schoolgirls who have heart attacks in taxi ranks, with their bodies packing up like songbirds in the snow, never to start again. These schoolgirls who are grieved by wondering communities.
I text you and after five unendurable minutes I attempt to call you. Your phone must be switched off. Perhaps you are so far into the labyrinth that you cannot get a signal.
All at once, you are coming out of the door of the banshee labyrinth, being washed out into the night amongst a crowd of smokers. I say your name from across the street, loud enough for you to hear, and you look up and straight into my eyes. Yet there is an unfamiliar softness there and your eyes cannot seem to quite alight on mine. You smile mystically and then your face is gone, flashing and dipping back into the blackness.
I jog to catch you up but a new kink in the impromptu conga line of people that is unwinding from the entrance makes a barrier that I cannot politely push through. There is so much noise now baying everywhere on the night air that I cannot shout over it. Even though you must be less than thirty feet away, I try to phone you again. I can pick out your ringtone distinctly from down the street but it continues without being answered.
It is that hour of the morning when all the taxis are fed and their bellies are full. I roam off vainly in search of a chance taxi and I am eventually crossing deeper into the south. Soon my apartment is potentially reachable and next it is a brisk walk away.
The joy from the vitamins is currently ebbing up again, and I am also hit by something stronger, a tingling, urgent sadness that I am alone. I want to rapidly strike up some conversation with any random homeless person, to cook up an important friendship on the spot. Fortunately, the streets are desolate during this particular interval of the dawn. I phone you again and again, as if you could be still retrieved from wherever this night has taken you. I am as cold as if the wind is flurrying around my bare bones.
At last, I am back at my apartment. I phone Pablo, one last desperate spin of the roulette wheel, but nothing comes of it.
I stop in the hallway and study myself in the mirror. The pupils of my eyes are as hideously huge as sinkholes that have swallowed a housing estate. I look gaunt and fearful – somebody who my earlier self of the evening would have never exchanged a word with. If I step back from the mirror, this stranger will mostly likely remain standing there and glowering into it.
The phone rang and I picked it up without thinking.
“Biggy, let me in, I’m outside.”
“Tori?” This new wave was a hundred times higher than anything that could be chemically unlocked in my brain. “You’re outside?”
“Let me in. I’m freezing.”
When she was upstairs, I hugged her passionately. She was amused and surprised. “Biggy, I’ve been trying to get away from this kind of thing.”
She explained that some unsettling old man had been pestering her to go to Granton with him. He had tried to press some fishy pills on her and she had thought the better of it. When I had called her name outside the labyrinth, she had thought that he had been chasing her. When she had looked into my eyes, she had thought that they were his. When her phone had rung, she had thought, impossibly, that he was phoning her, even though she had never given him her number.
Neither of us wanted to mention the drugs. But to my renewed despair, I discovered that we had no useable alcohol left in my apartment. The rubble of our earlier cocktail-making was on the kitchen table. There were two fingers of gin but no mixer. We soberly pondered mixing it with yoghurt.
Tori came back from the toilet with some car keys in her hand. She had found them on the little shelf above the washbasin.
“You don’t drive at the moment do you Biggy? These must be Pablo’s.”
“His car is still outside?” I vaguely thought that we should wheel his forgotten car somewhere safe and tuck blankets around it.
“You know, James told me that Pablo was in the Highlands yesterday, having a picnic with his girlfriend’s friends. There might be some leftover alcohol in his car.”
Outside, in that awful streaming light again, we assaulted several of the neighbours’ cars until we had pinpointed Pablo’s. In the boot, sure enough, there was a small hoard of goodies: a stack of plastic cups; a whole unopened bottle of champagne; three cans of cheap lager; the dregs of some rum; and half a bottle of rosé.
I scooped the bottles and cans up joyously into my arms as though they were lovely kittens. “This is the best birthday present ever.”
On our way back upstairs, Tori told me about the dawn chorus. “It is the most glorious thing to listen to – a whole world bursting into song.”
I was forced to admit that when I was walking home, I hadn’t heard it. Tori was scandalised. “Imagine if all of us – the entire population – sang on the way to work. A whole world bursting into song.” I was worried that she was going to start weeping.
We were still happily drinking at midday. The stars had gone early to bed like children; we had drunk the moon under the table.