‘You’re not going to meet anyone on this, you do know that don’t you?’ Rob looks disappointed, he still has dreams of running away to foreign lands to meet some exotic beauty.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know! It’s just a laugh but you’ve got to try these things.’
‘You’ve got to choose a username.’
‘What’s a username?’
‘It’s what shows up on the screen, so people can chat with you.’
‘You can’t choose Rob, there’ll be a million other ‘Robs’, you have to make something unique.’
‘I don’t know, you make one for me.’
‘For fuck’s sake.’
His old man had saved up and bought them a computer earlier in the year. Not many people had one and even fewer people had the internet. He didn’t really use it, occasionally to look at porn which was better than trying to nick a magazine off the top shelf of a newsagents. It was mostly weirdos who used it anyway and he didn’t consider himself a weirdo.
‘What about ‘BigBoy696969?’
‘You saying I’m fat?’
‘No you fucking idiot, I’m using your username to intimate you have a massive willy, you’ll have all the ladies coming running to you then.’
‘Yeah, yeah that’s a good username. It’s true too, like a rope my knob, I could use it to lasso horses.’
‘It’s no wonder you’re single.’
The chatroom he has found appears to be full of men, all with variants of names which, like Rob, are bragging about the size of their manhoods.
‘It’s full of geezers.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Well, ‘Hunglikeanelephant72’ and ‘sitonmyface99’ aren’t going to be women are they?’
‘Sitonmyface99 might be a lesbian, message her, I like lesbians.’ John looks at his mate to see if he’s joking but his face is deadly serious, excited at the prospect of being able to turn a lesbian.
‘It’s probably a geezer, in fact I would put money on it being a geezer but if it is a lesbian she’s not going to be interested in you. They like other women Rob.’
‘Nah, my mate told me once he went to one of them gay bars and there was this lesbian bird there and he ended up taking her home and shagging her. She said she wasn’t a lesbian no more after that.’
‘What a load of utter bollocks.’
They spend the next twenty minutes trawling through chat rooms, looking for usernames which look like they might belong to a woman. Rob is getting bored, the experience is not as he thought it would be. In his mind there was going to be hundreds of messages with women sending him their phone numbers along with naked pictures. So far he hadn’t got as much as a ‘hello’. John was equally bored, he’d been in the chat rooms before and the only people who had talked to was some geezer about football and a man asking if he wanted to meet him in the toilets of McDonalds somewhere in Manchester. John told him he did although he did feel slightly guilty at the thought of the man waiting around in a McDonalds.
‘Ever wanted to go to California?’
‘Yeah! What is this bird from California? I’ve always wanted to go to the ‘hood in L.A, like Compton or one of them places. The birds over there have all got blonde hair and shit as well.’
‘You’d get shot in Compton.’
‘No I wouldn’t, I’m fucking hard! They wouldn’t be able to deal with me. I’d take it over, end up one Snoop Doggy Dogg’s videos.’
‘I’m becoming more and more concerned about you.’
‘She’s asking what you look like.’
‘Say I’m hench, big muscles, black hair, blue eyes. Like the Milk Tray man! Tell her I’ve got a Ferrari as well.’
‘She wants to know if you know the queen.’
‘Tell her I go there every week for tea. They’re fucking stupid these yanks ain’t they? Ask her if she’s an actress, she must be if she lives in California.’
‘She says she is an actress, says she’s famous so she can’t tell you her name.’
‘What? Really? She has to give us a clue.’
‘She says she has to go, her manager is calling her.’
‘Get her number.’
‘Too late, she’s gone.’
‘I reckon I was in there.’
A message flashes up on the screen asking for ‘BigBoy696969’s’ name.
‘Tell her I’m called Frank.’
‘I don’t know, it’s the only one I could think of.’
‘She says she’s in London, over in Hampstead.’
‘She must be posh then. Ask her what she’s doing tonight?’
‘She says ‘Nothing, why don’t you come over bigboy and we can have some fun.’’
‘Ask her to send a picture, I’m not going all the way over to Hampstead if she’s ugly.’
‘She says she ain’t got a picture but you won’t be disappointed’
‘Tell her I’ll be over in an hour.’
‘Are you off your fucking head? You can’t go and meet some random bird you’ve exchanged a couple of messages with.’
‘Why not? It’ll be a laugh.’
‘She says two hours, meet her by that old pub next to the heath.’
‘I don’t know, what if it ain’t a woman and it’s some geezer and he murders me?’
‘Yeah, fuck it I’ll go. You’re coming with me though.’
‘No I fucking ain’t. Why would I come with you?’
‘Safety, if it’s a murderer he ain’t going to be able to kill both of us is he?’
‘I thought you was the big man everyone is scared of?’
‘I’m not that hard. If they find me in little pieces across Hampstead Heath tomorrow it’ll be your fault.’
John looks at his watch as they travel on the 31 bus up to the heath. Rob is excited, he’s convinced he’s bagged himself a frustrated housewife who wants a bit of rough to make her life more exciting. His mum was doing yoga when he left and his dad wanted to use the computer so he could look at a map of India. He’d check the history later and see what else his old man was looking up.
After a long walk through Hampstead Village they can both see the pub, it looks closed. Neither of them can see anyone waiting outside.
‘Wait in the car park for me.’
‘How will I know you’re okay?’
‘I’ll do a whistle, then you can fuck off home.’
‘If she’s a frustrated housewife she isn’t going to be taking you home.’
‘Her fella’s probably on a business trip or something.’
John stands in the car park and watches the big frame of his best mate walk off into the darkness towards the pub. Rob stops suddenly and disappears into the bushes. Now what? Does he follow him into the bushes or does he wait and see what happens? Anything could be happening in there. Two minutes later Rob appears again and carries on walking down the road towards the pub. He stops outside the main door. If the old bill were to come past they’d definitely be stopping him.
Five minutes later two figures appear on the pavement opposite the pub, they cross the road and walk towards Rob. There wasn’t supposed to be two of them. What if this woman’s fella like to watch or something? He can’t make out if the figures are men or women. He has to make a decision. Does he go and rescue his mate and potentially ruin his blind date or does he wait here and then feel guilty when he gets robbed or worse? Rob holds up his hand and waves. John sets off towards him.
Standing in front of Rob is a person dressed in a black leather skirt, black leggings and a black and white leopard print top. On the person’s head is a wig which looks so ridiculous if they were in any other situation both of them would burst out laughing. The other figure is a balding middle age man who is wearing a suit and a pair of trainers.
‘Are you Frank?’
‘I think there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding here.’
‘You should have told me you were bringing a friend along too, he’s a handsome boy isn’t he Geoff?’
Geoff, the man in the suit says nothing but looks John up and down. John looks down at the man dressed as a woman and notices she’s holding a dog lead in one hand. He follows the lead with his eyes and sees it’s connected to the collar of Geoff’s suit. He nudges Rob and nods his head towards the lead. Even in the darkness he can see Rob’s face turn white.
‘I’m sorry about this but I think there’s been a mistake, Rob here thought you were a bored housewife. We’ll be going now.’
‘I can be whatever you want me to.’ He or it, reaches his hand out and strokes Rob’s face. Rob is petrified unable to move. John is partly enjoying seeing his friend in such a state of discomfort. Not seeing any reaction from Rob the woman steps back and slaps Geoff around the face. Perversely Geoff smiles gets down on all fours and barks like a dog.
‘Rob, we’d better be going mate, I don’t think this will be your thing.’
‘Why didn’t you ask the poor boy what he was into, Geoff? I’ve told you before, not everyone will have the same tastes as we do. I’m sorry boys, didn’t mean to bring you all the way out here. We could still have some fun if you want some?’
‘Yeah, we’re not really into all that but I’m sure you two can enjoy yourselves. Come on Rob, let’s go.’
‘For fuck’s sake Geoff, I’ve done myself up all nice as well! I don’t suppose you two like to smoke weed? We’ve both come all the way out here, we might as well smoke a couple of spliffs together.’
‘Nah, we’re all right, honestly. You two crack on.’
‘I’ll have a spliff with you.’ Rob finally breaks his silence, much to John’s dismay.
‘Fantastic! Geoff get up, you can stop play acting now, these two are just going to have a smoke with us.’
Geoff stands up and adjusts his suit, the woman takes the collar off him. Geoff looks at the two of them apologetically ‘Sorry lads, I should have asked what you were into. It’s just most people with names like bigboy are gay and well I just assumed…’
‘I fucking told you it was a shit username! Where we going to smoke these spliffs then? You got a car or something.’ John has gone silent. His friend who was earlier in the evening concerned about getting murdered on Hampstead Heath is now eager to smoke weed with two strangers, one a transvestite and the other who likes to pretend he’s a dog.
‘You sure about this Rob?’
‘Come on, it’ll be a laugh. What’s your name mate?’
‘Jackie, during the day I’m Jason but it’s night time now so you can call me Jackie.’
Jackie leads them off into the bushes of the heath, John hesitates but seeing Rob’s eagerness he knows he can’t leave him alone. They traipse through bushes and over fallen down trees. Geoff is chatting away to Rob, he’s no longer a dog but a merchant banker who works in the city. They arrive at a clearing in the woods, Jackie takes a seat on a fallen over tree, John declines to sit down, scanning the bushes to see which would be the best way to run in the event either of them suddenly become violent. Jackie sees what he’s doing.
‘Don’t worry, we’re harmless. We should probably be scared of you.’
‘Ain’t it a bit dangerous, meeting strangers on the internet in the middle of a heath?’
‘To tell you the truth, you’re the first people we’ve ever met. We’ve arranged to meet people but they usually don’t turn up.’
‘Are you like a proper man then Jackie?’ John hits rob with a little dig in the side.
‘Yes, I’m a man.’ He sighs a dramatic sighs and lights up a joint, exhaling loudly ‘I wish I wasn’t though, it would be so much easier to be a woman.’
It’s an absurd situation and one he would never have found himself in if it wasn’t for his friend becoming ever more insane since the death of Claire. Two months ago this wouldn’t have happened. Rob would have called him a pervert for meeting people on the internet. John is curious though, not curious as in wants to experiment with a transvestite and a man who thinks he’s a dog, but curious as to how it works. How do you suddenly decide that being a dog is your thing? If he got down on his knees in front of Sarah and started barking she’d slap him and then throw him out of the house.
‘Geoff, I don’t want to sound rude mate, but how did you find out being a dog was what you are into?’
‘It’s a release. I work all day, long hours, when I’m a dog, I can escape and be someone else. I don’t have to think about the rest of the world.’
‘So are you two like a couple?’
‘No, Geoff likes bitches.’
‘I bet he does.’
‘Tell me about yourself boys, do you have a girlfriend John? A good looking lad like yourself should do.’ Jackie passes the spliff to John.
‘Yeah, well sort of. I’m seeing someone, I wouldn’t exactly say she was my missus.’
‘Ohhh! Very noncommittal, I bet she thinks you’re her boyfriend.’
‘I don’t think she does actually. She’s pretty laid back.’
‘You’ll be marrying her in a couple of year’s time then you’ll have lots of kids run around. Fuck that!’
‘She wants to go off travelling at the end of the summer, she asked me to go with her but I don’t think I’m up for it.’
‘You never told me that.’
‘It’s not important, there’s no need to tell you.’
‘ooooh! An argument, be careful Geoff likes a bit of anger.’ John takes another pull on the spliff and then passes it to Geoff.
‘What do I want to go away for? There’s no point in it, I’m open minded, I have to be if I’m standing here with you two but I feel like going off around the world would just be a waste of time. I’ve got a job lined up, everything is ready to fall into place.’
‘I wish I had the opportunity to travel when I was younger, I’d have bitten your hand off. Always fancied Hong Kong or somewhere in the far east. Couldn’t do it now though.’
‘It’s not for me these days, darling. I’m a home bird, besides what would Geoff do without me?’
‘I thought Geoff likes bitches?’
‘I can be a bitch too! Go where your heart takes you John, you shouldn’t always follow your head. I’ve always wondered if I’d have taken another path in life whether I’d like dressing up as a woman and walking a middle aged man around as if he’s a Labrador.’
‘I’d say there’s a good chance I won’t be doing that when I’m your age.’
‘You never know where life will take you sweetheart.’
John and Rob leave Jackie and Geoff in the woods, half stoned they make their way back down Hampstead Heath.
‘That was a bit fucked up.’
‘I ain’t looking for women on the internet no more mate.’
‘Bit wrong that though ain’t it? Thinking you’re a dog.’
‘Whatever floats your boat I suppose.’
Walking through the backstreets of north London they eventually end up outside the gates of Primrose Hill. During the day it’s filled with tourists but in the dead of night the gates are locked. They look at each other, both having the same idea. The leap up onto a wall and then over the spiked gates. In front of them is a stunning view of the city. They lie down on the ridge which makes up the viewing point. When you see a picture of London’s skyline there’s a good chance it’s been taken from Primrose Hill.
‘You love Sarah don’t you?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Of course you’re sure, it’s just you know she’s going so you don’t want to admit. I saw the way you was looking at her the other night, you’re bang in love.’
‘Yeah, I do but what am I supposed to do?’
‘Go with her, what’s the point in staying here? I’d go if I was given the chance, straight on that plane, swimming in blue seas. Do you know where I’ve always wanted to go?’
‘I’ve always wanted to go to Vietnam.’
‘What do you want to go there for?’
‘I read a lot about the war there, I think it’d be a good place to see. Some of the pictures look beautiful.’
‘You must be dizzy up in this part of the world let alone Vietnam.’
‘I want to go John. I want to leave this place, this city, leave it all behind me, never think about it again. There’s this woman who Randolph lends money to, she’s got a kid who’s disabled, her whole life revolves around that kid, there’s nothing else for her. I went to collect money off her yesterday and she didn’t have it so I give it to him out of my own pocket. What does that make me?’
‘Why are you having a moral crisis now? You’ve always known what you do is a shit thing to do to people. You either give them drugs or take money they don’t have off them.’
‘Why are you friends with me then?’
‘We’ve been friends since we were five. I don’t know why I turn a blind eye to what you do, I don’t even think about because if I do I’d probably never talk to you again. Like that woman with the disabled kid, all you’re doing is preying on her vulnerabilities. You’re as big a cunt as Randolph is, you might not want to admit that but that’s how it looks to everyone else.’
‘That’s why I want to walk away. I know that.’
‘Walk away then. No one’s going to stop you.’
When you open up to someone it’s usually because you are looking for assurance, you know the answer to the question you are asking yourself. When you ask the question to your friend, you have an answer which you are hoping they will give you. When they don’t give you the answer you want you blame them for not understanding. John didn’t give him the answer he wanted, he wanted John to say he wanted him to stay and that he’d miss him and that he really wasn’t a cunt. He didn’t get that answer.
This is a chapter from my new book ‘Angels Pop Pills Too’ which will be available from 10th January. The book follows a group of people living in London in the late 90s. I couldn’t write a book about the 90s without writing about how the internet was viewed at the time. Something which is now ubiquitous in our lives was viewed with scepticism and associated with danger. If you follow this blog or like my Facebook page you’ll be able to download it for free between 10th and 13th before it goes on general sale on Amazon. You can also see my other books by clicking here.
Have a good new year everyone!