Two hours later, my backpack is rather heavy. In addition to Phillip Pullman and Angela Carter and Dostoyevsky, I have picked up a fabulous book called The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Scientists. The pirates meet up with Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. I ask you, how was I supposed to resist that? And it was only 6 quid.
I go to Marco's office to drop off my backpack at 7 pm. We go to the Princess Louise, a pub on High Holborn road, to meet with the birthday boy before going on the boat ride down the Thames. The group is not interested in food, so we walk to the Sainsbury's on the corner to grab a light dinner. While we're wolfing down our sandwiches, a fairly ordinary-looking fellow stops dead in his tracks and looks me slowly up and down three times. My mouth full of cheese sandwich, I raise my head and notice the homicidal gleam starting to appear in my boyfriend's eyes.
The man approaches and says, "Are you going to the Munch?"
We look baffled. "No," says Marco, adjusting his eyebrows into their most forbidding configuration.
The man, whose name is George, proceeds to tell us about the London Munch, which is held on the last Friday of every month on the second floor of the Princess Louise. It is an informal gathering of those who share our interests, to talk about "the scene," he says. The stairwell has a Private Party sign on it, but we're absolutely welcome there. "Oh," he adds, "and there's no pressure to play."
I nearly choke on my sandwich. We thank him for the invitation and tell him we already have plans for the evening in a vain effort to get rid of him. We're both rather distressed at the prospect of returning to the Princess Louise to meet our friends. Finally, when we're done with our food, he leaves us alone to go and visit a cash point, but several seconds later he comes bounding up behind us and tells us we should really pop upstairs and check it out. We're casting desperately about for some way to get rid of him that doesn't involve getting arrested for assault when Marco's co-worker fortuitously walked by. "IAN!" bellowed Marco, enveloping the startled Aussie, whom he'd seen less than half an hour ago, in a bear hug. "Save us," I mouthed.
Ian, his face twitching, marches us back to the Princess Louise. We tell the birthday boy, Arjen, the story. "Oh yeah?" he says coolly. "We saw some guys go up there earlier with these big heavy bags and we were curious and tried to follow, but they wouldn't let us in."
On our way to the tube station, I learn that Arjen works on the porn team at Marco's company. He's used to having to call people and berate them for not actually serving up "German Shepherd-loving Asian teen videos" on their site, so he wasn't exactly shocked.
There are about forty of us piling into the boat. The DJ downstairs is spinning hair bands and classic rock, since that's what Arjen and Foggy, a tall, aging Northern rocker and the other birthday boy, requested. The retinue is comprised of a significant percentage of pretty East Asian girls. I crassly remark to Marco that someone has yellow fever. He shushes me. One of them, a Japanese girl, approaches me with her boyfriend to invite Marco and me to their band's show later that month. They are both very beautiful. They think that perhaps we are in a band too? No, we tell them, we just love the music. We would be happy to come to the show. Contented, they ensconce themselves in a corner where they spend the rest of the evening taking pictures.
We go up to the deck to watch London scroll past. We pass underneath the Tower Bridge. I throw my head back and look straight up. The perspective gives me vertigo, although I am sure that it isn't helped by the vast quantity of special cigarettes from Holland being smoked by Foggy and some of his Italian friends. We drift past central London through the shipping district, which lies dark and quiet and rather ominous in the chilly evening. Canary Wharf is like a bright beacon ahead of us. We pass the Greenwich Observatory and are delighted to see a Giant Green Laser shooting out of the top of it. Foggy tells us it defines the meridian line.
"Doesn't it interfere with airplane flight paths?" I ask.
He says no. There are no airports in that direction that run flights past around 8 pm, which is when they turn on the GGL. We stay silent for a bit, enjoying the sight of it, and then we reach the Shame of London, that is, the Millennium Dome. The Dome was open for about eight months for an exhibition, and then it closed. Very occasionally, it hosts a concert, but for the most part it sits there being a multi-million pound eyesore. It looks vaguely like a crown with long pointy yellow spikes.
The boat turns around, and we go downstairs to buy the birthday boys some drinks and get properly pissed ourselves before we have to disembark. Some of the company dissolves into the night and the rest of us head for the Borderline to get in some dancing. Unfortunately for us, there's no unexpectedly good and unknown indie band playing and the DJ stinks. Marco's ribs, which may have been cracked in last week's football game, are causing him a lot of pain. It is being aggravated by Arjen, who keeps punching him gleefully. Arjen is beginning to piss me off. He cements this feeling by dropping the drink I bought him and then deliberately stomping on the glass. I decide not to buy him any more drinks.
I am standing near the dance floor, stifling a yawn, when a slender French girl from the boat party leans over to talk to me. She tells me I look the way she feels. I grin back and tell her that I've never been very good at hiding my emotions. She laughs, and the guy from the boat party who is dancing near her, a sleazeball named Frank, leans in just enough to cut off our conversation. A few minutes later, Marco comes back from the dance floor, wincing, to tell me he thinks that she may have wanted rescuing.
I am a little ashamed at my lack of perception. I butt in to talk to her again and she decides to leave with us. Marco has to physically block Frank, who is still carrying a full pint of beer and is clearly unwilling to part from it, from pawing at her while we get our coats. She has huge brown eyes, a pair of spiky heels that give away her inebriated condition and a shaky command of the English language. We tell her we will walk her to her bus stop, which is quite a ways away, so that she won't have to be alone. She talks to us as we walk, and uses French words, which we try to translate, when she doesn't know the English for something. It works fairly well. She stops to ask a man who I wouldn't have approached in broad daylight, "Excuse me, do you have lighter?" She had told Frank that she has a boyfriend who lives in Spain but she felt too sorry for him to tell him to leave her alone. Before I can begin to refute this very dangerous position, she asks about Marco and me. We tell her we've been together for some time now, and, her eyes shining with drink and naïveté, she exclaims over our luck – as in, mine and hers – in finding someone so devoted. Although this doesn't really work as a logical argument against telling persistent men to back the fuck off, I am so overwhelmed by her evident lack of a sense of personal protectiveness that I can only smile and nod.
On the bus, my hand curled into Marco's, I feel, for the first time, strangely old. I am only five years her senior, but I find it difficult to remember being that fearless, that convinced that other people would exhibit goodwill and respect for me no matter what I did. As she tottered along towards her bus stop, I hoped we wouldn't read in the paper the next day about the young drunk French girl who had been robbed and raped after asking some dodgy punter for a light for her cigarette. Is everyone born with the belief that no harm can befall them? I am beginning to think that what differentiates the wise from the foolish is the rapidity with which we learn that it can and will, no matter how kind we try to be to other people. I am not all that convinced that the wise are better off because of it.