His face glowed orange, yellow, red. Or one side of it did. He’d squeezed himself into a corner by the fruit machine and he gazed at the glasses ranged on top of the bar. Percy. He had a beard, or at least a couple of days’ growth, but he didn’t have long hair any more. Grey stubble. He still did that chewing thing though. There was a pint on the table in front of him with about two fingers off the top. He clutched his hands together between his knees and wobbled in time to some music only he could hear. The fruit machine blipped and beeped though. Glassy eyes. He’d drifted off, dreaming about something it seemed. Or maybe just bored.
“Percy,” I said.
He looked at me, put his hands on the table top and stood. I’d forgotten just how tall he was. We stood like that for a moment then I moved towards him and threw my arms round his shoulders. He didn’t reciprocate.
When I released him and stood back I got to look at him properly. He was thin. There didn’t seem to be much muscle and he was pale. His jacket, one of those pale green ex-army things, hung on him. It looked like someone else’s coat. There was a bulge on the bridge of his nose that I couldn’t remember and his right eye was bloodshot. He said something that I couldn’t hear.
He spoke louder. “Let me get you one,” he said.
He stood at the bar with his back to me. I thought he couldn’t face me. Or didn’t want to. I imagined myself telling him it was good of him to contact me then looking at my watch and leaving. I didn’t, of course.
He placed a pint on the table and I lifted it. Took a mouthful. Then I asked where he’d been.
“How d’you mean?”
The last time I’d seen him he was in his second year at Uni. That was almost fifteen years ago. No. More.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “It’s been a long time.”
“I’ve been around.”
He looked worn out and I told him so.
“Thing is,” he said. And he paused to take a swig of his beer. “You see, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been a twat. I wanted to see you and tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
He picked up a beer mat and tapped its edge against the table. I saw that crappy tattoo on his hand then. It looked as though he’d done it himself. Perhaps it was supposed to be a sun symbol but it was egg shaped rather than circular. He took a deep breath then licked his lips and looked straight at me.
“I’ve made some mistakes in my life,” he said, “and one big one was losing touch with you.”
How do you respond to that? I must have sat with my mouth open for I don’t know how long. Eventually I said something like “I don’t know what to say. Thanks.”
“You see,” he paused again. “I’ve been inside.”
He wiped his hand across his lips and his Adam’s apple wobbled a couple of times. He started to cry.
“I’m sorry,” he said.