He had to admit they’d planned the evening very well. He could do all the filming in one afternoon at Shepperton and he’d doubled down on making sure that he had full control of the programming.
Breathing a sigh of contentment, he closed his laptop and grabbed his coat to go out to the shops.
It was December but it didn’t feel remotely Christmassy. A bit rainy. A bit chilly. Chilly yes, but after walking up the steep street to the Tesco Express he would inevitably be sweating under his winter clothes. Dark. Dark was the main thing. What’s the weather like? It’s dark.
He walked past extravagantly decorated houses. The trend this year seemed to be to create a kind of tableau. Santa Claus getting stuck in a chimney, that kind of thing. He considered taking a photo and tweeting it but had a sudden worry that he might be seen. Still, he took his phone out of his pocket to check Twitter. His spirits rose when he saw that he had a notification, but no, it was just that a raindrop had landed on the screen, refracting the pixels.
Getting older made time feel like it was going faster. Christmas seemed to come around about once a fortnight. If it was somehow less frequent he could deal with it. Maybe they could do a fallow year like Glastonbury? He questioned what he meant by ‘they’ and wondered if there was any material in that. Easter too. Why is Easter when it is? Why couldn’t he just have his birthday on the second Tuesday of June? He pictured trying this out at a local comedy night. Little rooms above pubs where fresh-faced comics tried out new five-minute sets. He sometimes popped in unannounced. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, do we have a treat in store for you!’
He never imagined that he would make a success of it when he had first started going to stand-up nights at The Hatchet pub in 2005. Sitting at the back of the room. Thinking, ‘I could do better than that!’ Plucking up the courage to give it a stab himself.
Philip imagined that he was doing a talking head interview, perhaps for a Channel 4 show — a countdown of the best stand-ups of all time. He wouldn’t be featured (not yet!) but would be perfect as a go-to man. ‘The thing with writing stand-up material is you just have to listen to your inner voice, tune into your thoughts.’ A warm glow of pleasure washed over him.
He passed the last of the decorated houses. Christmas no longer felt special. There was a Christmas maybe in his early twenties when to hear ‘Fairytale of New York’ would make him feel almost indescribably cosy. But ten or fifteen years on Christmas had come to resemble a programme you had watched too many times in the edit, to the point where you had completely lost any emotional connection with it and could no longer tell if it was good or not.
This thought troubled him so he decided to take his mind along some more comfortable grooves — the filming for his TV special.
The doors glided open for him at the Tesco. Trebly music. Vague jingle of sleigh bells.
So it was sorted. The strand would begin at 6pm on BBC 2 on the Thursday before Christmas. Billed as ‘All Back to Philip Duffy’s’, the idea was that he would choose a selection of his favourite TV programmes, films and cultural ephemera and record a series of links introducing them in a studio made out to look like his living room, decorated with baubles and tinsel. As the night would progress he’d become more inebriated (he wondered if he could actually drink during filming for verisimilitude), and the detritus of a night in would pile up around him: pizza boxes, empty cans, crisp packets. He even thought about having flatmates come and go during the evening. Perhaps he could get cameos for other stand-ups?
The hope was that this could become an annual thing. The producers had been excited to have Philip on board after the success of his podcast and stand-up tour. Josh Widdicombe had been pencilled in originally but it was decided that Philip had a broader appeal. He was as comfortable on QI as on Mock the Week and he also had the retired teacher/BBC Four viewer/Hay-on-Wye attendee demographic sewn up thanks to his surprisingly popular radio documentary series on James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, ‘A Duffy’s Guide to Modernism’. A book deal beckoned. Finally putting that English degree to good use! There were talks of taking the format to TV. He blushed to recall that the words ‘national treasure’ had been bandied around.
He had been standing in front of the beer fridge for a while now and realised he had been mentally composing an answer in response to being asked, ‘How does it feel to be a national treasure?’ on Graham Norton. A man with a four-pack of Thatchers was eyeing him curiously. Philip realised he must have said, ‘The words “national treasure” smack of Yewtree a bit these days don’t they?’ out loud.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the Thatchers man was staring at him because he recognised him.
‘Excuse me, mate.’
Ah yes, that was it. He’d grown used to getting recognised but it always sent a shiver of contentment down his spine.
‘Yes, hi there!’
‘Sorry, I just need…’ He pointed at the rows of Prosecco with his four-pack.
‘Oh, of course. Sorry.’
Philip cringed internally. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Duffy!
‘Thatchers… and Prosecco! Having a party?’
‘No.’ The Thatchers man was already walking off towards the crisps.
Philip realised he was drunk. He was drunk in the Tesco Express again. And he remembered he’d already been here earlier this evening. Buying a four-pack of Stella which he’d drunk at home. He picked up another four-pack, an oven pizza, a bag of popcorn, some beef jerky and a six-pack of Frazzles. He was in the queue when he thought sod it and went back to replace the four-pack with a ‘fridge pack’ (ten cans). He realised that his basket looked a pretty sorry sight so he picked up something, anything to up its game. Halloumi. He had no idea what he would do with the halloumi. But there it was, raising the stock of his basket. Someone had once called him pretentious for saying he liked halloumi. Do people even know what pretentious means any more? There had to be some material in that.
While queuing he noticed that the cans of Stella in the fridge pack had festive snowflakes and ribbons on them. Ha. You can keep your red Starbucks cups! Could make a good tweet. He caught the attention of the man in front of him.
‘You can keep your red Starbucks cups!’
‘What’s that?’ It was the Thatchers man again. Philip realised he hadn’t gestured at the cans of Stella so his quip had appeared somewhat in media res.
‘Oh sorry!’ He’d been working in radio too long! ‘I said, “You can keep your red Starbucks cups!” Look at these Stellas!’
Philip muttered, ‘What?’ his mouth suddenly very dry.
The Thatchers man looked at the Stellas and reverse engineered Philip’s observation.
‘Oh yeah. Christmas cans.’
Not a great reaction. Best not to tweet it.
Outside the shop Philip was suddenly struck by the wonderful realisation that he didn’t have to go home. He could go to the pub first! Occasionally the absolute freedom, the sheer variety and scope of what you could do as an adult struck him like a lightning bolt. He always remembered as a child seeing his parents coming home from the pub, flushed, smelling of beer and smoke, their voices an uncontrolled clamour, as if they’d been to some magical, transformative place.
He could go to the pub! Pubs obsessed him. He sometimes had dreams about a strange pub in a familiar cityscape, a kind of mystical pub which he suddenly remembered was there — hidden behind streets, just off city squares, in basements, up flights of stairs. And in the dream that sudden realisation was a kind of ecstasy. He always woke with a sense of loss though. The pub was not real.
The Inn on the Green. He could pop in there for a quick one. He had reason to celebrate after all. This TV thing had been a long time coming. He had one or two emails to send when he got back home but he was sure he could do that after a couple of pints.
While walking to the pub Philip ran through the programmes that would feature on ‘All Back to Philip Duffy’s’, or ABPD as the producers had started calling it. It wasn’t exactly a Christmassy line-up but he had insisted that it would be a welcome antidote to the usual tripe that was on at this time of year. First up would be Nuts in May — Philip pleasurably recalled what he had planned for his introduction: used to have the VHS… brother and I knew it off by heart… ‘He’s cryin’ now! He’s bleedin’ well cryin’!’ Next up would be an episode of Blackadder (controversially, Philip had opted for something from the much-maligned first series), then Anthony Burgess’s documentary about James Joyce (what an enjoyable afternoon he had spent digging around for that in the BBC archives), a Richard Thompson concert from the 90s, a cartoon of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, an episode of The Owl Service (‘that book haunted my imagination as a child…’), a reading of some M. R. James ghost stories, and finally a showing of Watership Down, a film which for some reason he always watched around Christmas. A good mix of culture, comedy, nostalgia… and something to give you a bit of a chill. Horror always worked well at Christmas. And then cut to Philip asleep on the sofa with a half-eaten mince pie resting on his chest.
He plonked his Tesco bags down on the bar. The Inn on the Green was crowded with Christmas drinkers who seemed to have never been to a pub before, but he didn’t have to wait long until a barmaid walked over.
‘Someone’s been busy!’ she said.
‘Yes, I’m losing track!’ He rambled on in what he hoped was an endearingly humble way about the podcast, the panel show appearances, the stand-up. Her eyes went really big.
‘I just meant… the shopping.’
‘Ah. Yes well… Needs must!’ He didn’t know what he meant. ‘Guinness please. And a Highland Park.’
‘Double up on the whisky for an extra pound?’
Probably a bad idea.
He sat down in a quiet booth and took out the novel he was reading from his coat pocket. He arranged it on the table in front of him, beside his pint and tumbler. He took a photo and posted it on Instagram with the hashtag ‘bliss’. He refreshed the screen a few times, waiting for likes. Honestly, comedians need more approval than a self-service checkout! It was a line from his recent stand-up show. He said it again in his head, weighing the words differently. Should it be supermarket checkout? Self-service supermarket checkout was a bit of a mouthful.
He opened the novel, read a paragraph and checked his phone again.
Things would be so much better now he’d sorted out a study to work in. He’d spent too long reading and writing in his bed at home. Now he had a place to go to in town. It would be like doing a 9 to 5.
He took out his pen and turned to a blank page at the end of the novel. He was going to sketch out the plan of the studio flat he had just started renting. Could have a fold-up bed here. Desk at the window looking down on Baldwin Street. Stereo here. TV on the wall? Too distracting. He imagined days of leaving his phone at home and turning off the wifi in the flat. Pure concentration. He could even make a start on that novel idea he’d been mulling over.
In truth he didn’t have a lot to go on with the novel so far. He had a title. Night is Most Uncertain. Majestic! And he knew roughly what it would be about: memories of his university days, seen through the filter of the years of nostalgia he’d used to develop them in the darkroom of his soul. He’d read somewhere that every time you remember something you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it. So the memory itself becomes less and less definite, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photograph. He knew he had nothing much going for his novel other than a title and a vague mood of remorse that he wanted to convey. But with his study, and the focus that would allow, it would all change. He imagined entering such a pure, hypnotised state of concentration that the writing would… write itself. Like a search function on a computer hard drive he would be able to filter through his memories effortlessly, his mind an index of his past, a concordance. If he were highly attuned enough he would barely have to work at all.
Where would he save the Word document of Night is Most Uncertain on his laptop though? The question made him lift his head up from the damp table. He had a generic ‘2017’ folder for everything he had been working on that year. But maybe he needed to create a new folder called ‘Novels’. A bit daunting though. How that folder would mock him if his novel never came to fruition. What about a folder called ‘Night is Most Uncertain’? And then he could make versions of the document, keep drafts as he was going along. Or should he just have one master version? But then what if, in a fit of merciless editing, he deleted an amazing passage he had come up with one whisky-soaked afternoon, rain beating against the window? Maybe he could print out drafts as he went along.
Come on Philip. Back to the study.
Yes, his study was two floors above a pub. He imagined going downstairs at 4pm (‘Bier at vier!’ as his German friend at uni used to say), avoiding the post-work rush after a long day of writing. The barman, one of these elaborately bearded Brompton bike-owning guys, would be pulling a new ale through into the ullage bucket.
‘Productive day, Philip?’ he would say, moving to pour him a pint of London Pale Ale.
He gulped the whisky but it tasted toxic in his throat.
‘The sitcom’s fine, the radio show’s fine… but when am I actually going to find the time to write something that I bloody want to write!’
He looked down at his plan. Where to put his new filing cabinet? He had always wanted a really nice filing cabinet. Somewhere to store his invoices, scripts, pitches for TV. He’d seen a shop on Coldharbour Road that sold these beautiful 60s style ones, available in baby blue or surf green. He’d been unsure which colour to go for but had plumped for the blue. Perhaps if the cabinet went by the desk here. Could get a nice plant to go on top too. A cheese plant. An aspidistra!
Closing his eyes, he took a few moments to relish the feeling of satisfaction. His mind going over these well-worn grooves again.
At long last his life was becoming ordered, the grids of a map appearing from beneath the chaotic terrain. Everything was in its right place.
Ululating banter rose like acid reflux in the pub. Above the din he could make out a Van Morrison song. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. It was always ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Or ‘Moondance’. Never something off Astral Weeks. But then again, that wasn’t the most accessible of albums. He drifted back into talking head mode. This time it was a ‘behind the music’ style documentary about classic albums.
‘“Ineluctable modality of the visible.” That’s the sentence that makes everyone want to give up on Ulysses. And I would argue that something similar is happening with “Beside You” on Astral Weeks. When you listen to that album for the first time, you hear that song and you just think, “What is this rubbish!”’
‘What is this rubbish!’ He mouthed it a few times, trying to get it to sound right.
He reclined in his chair and his thoughts, normally so ordered, drifted apart. The crack in the ceiling was the same as the one above his bed at home. Voices from ‘All Back to Philip Duffy’s’ whispered in his ear. The woman of flowers. The Witchsmeller Pursuivant. She was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing. Durdle Door. A dog loose in the wood. You breathe in, you breathe out.
Philip walked home unsteadily through the applauding rain. Although he wouldn’t remember this the following day (he would barely remember anything after the third whisky), he had paused for a while and stood over a manhole cover in the middle of Keys Avenue. He had been drawn to the extraordinarily loud sound of the water rushing beneath him — the drains cascading with the downpour, an underground river.
Back at home he incinerated his oven pizza to a carbon disc. He checked his bank balance on his phone. The perilous state of his overdraft. The shocking discovery that The Inn on the Green had already charged him for his drinks that night. He thought that contactless payments from that pub didn’t come out for a day or two, which would have given him a period of grace before he was paid at the end of the week.
Reality seeped in. Gradually the elaborate theatre he had constructed in his mind fell apart piece by piece.
He stood out in the garden staring at the panoply of frosty stars, with a can of Stella in his hand. He should have given it a go back at The Hatchet. He set his alarm for work on his phone, wincing at the realisation of how little sleep he would get.
It was time for bed. He went inside.
There was no podcast, no stand-up tour, no studio flat above Baldwin Street, no filing cabinet, no ‘All Back to Philip Duffy’s’. Just the lambent trace of a burgeoning migraine aura, bluey silver, jagged and shard-like. He felt the hangover already, felt how it would haunt the pre-dawn bus queue and the grey light of the office tomorrow.