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Bjorn, Who Stayed in Southampton

by Jon 

Recently I caught up with my old friend Björn, who’d stayed in Southampton. I’d been sent down there to chase a lead for my boss, but it was a washout, and the meeting ended hours sooner than it was supposed to. Rather than calling the office or trying to catch an earlier train, I decided to take a walk. I thought maybe I’d pass by our old bars. Or the shopping centre where we used to lift our outfits. The drain that Polly and Millie once took turns throwing up into.

Before long, I started to like the idea of a quiet beer on a bench, so I walked towards Champagne Charlie’s, the offy where we’d buy VKs and wine. But it wasn’t there anymore; in its place was a ‘board game café’, and that was where I saw Björn.

He was with four friends, all wearing faded print t-shirts. I drew closer to the window. They had plates piled high with chicken dippers and curly fries, and their board game was wider than the table it sat on. My breath fogged the glass. The guy next to Björn had a Rick & Morty tattoo; two others were wearing fedoras.

They looked so happy.

I drew a smiley face in my breath, and that was when Björn noticed me.

 

‘Just the alco-free, please.’

‘Come on. A ten-year reunion is worth a real beer.’

‘Well, just a low-percentage IPA,’ Björn said. ‘I’m working tonight.’

I went to the bar. At the top of the chalkboard there was a three-percenter called ‘Microgoo’. I got two. 

‘Working on what?’ I asked, as I sat back down at our upturned-barrel table.

‘I run the weekly D&D night back at the café,’ Björn said. ‘It’s a drop-in session, to encourage new players. It’s one of the best parts of my week, honestly. They really rely on me.’

‘Mmm,’ I said, swirling my IPA, which tasted like shit.

Björn asked me what I was doing in Southampton. After muting an incoming call from my boss, I explained I was there for work. He asked me what I do. He asked me if I remembered the time we slayed the Skull-King in the Necromancer’s Crypt and I told him I didn’t think about that stuff anymore. We drank. I asked if he was seeing anyone. He showed me a video of his wife cosplaying as Femshep from Mass Effect. Sixty-thousand likes. 

‘So where do you live now?’ he asked.

I live in a part of London that used to be cool, and still sounds cool to people who don’t live here.

‘Wow, cool,’ said Björn. ‘That must be exciting. Proper city living.’

‘Southampton’s a city.’

Björn shrugged.

‘Well, you know,’ he said.

We drank. My boss called again. I turned off my phone.

‘It does get lonely,’ I said. ‘Like, I have friends, everyone has friends. But the ones with babies only talk about babies, and the ones without are even worse. You can’t do anything—nobody commits, and everybody flakes, and anytime you try to organise something, you just feel like a total cunt. Everyone has better things to do these days. Ugh, I don’t know. I guess that’s just life, right? In Anglo-land. Don’t you think so? Doesn’t it feel like that now?’

'Oh, no,’ said Björn. ‘Oh, I don’t feel like that at all.’

It had rolled out of him too easily, and he knew it. He looked away and drained his IPA.

I stood up quickly.

‘I’ll get you.’

Björn looked at the space on his wrist where a watch should have been.

‘But—’

‘Come on.’ I manufactured a smile. ‘One more for your old, uh, cleric.’

Björn sighed, plainly unhappy.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘just a low percentage.’

I went back to the bar. I bought two more Microgoos from the top of the chalkboard, but I also bought a shot of vodka, which I tipped into the leftmost pint before bringing them back to our barrel-table.
 

The streetlights had just come on. Björn sagged in my arms.

‘Those weren’t low percentage,’ he burbled. I patted his cheek, smoothing chicken grease into his beard.

‘No,’ I said. ‘They weren’t.’

I had lost count of the Microgoos. Björn had objected less and less with every round. 

With effort, I dug my phone from my pocket and turned it on. Notifications rolled in—my boss, mostly. He’d left voicemails. Who leaves voicemails? Björn’s phone was buzzing too, incessantly, but nobody was leaving him voicemails.

I lowered Björn onto the kerb. We were outside a bar that had once been called Junk. Across the road, two girls in white t-shirts and pink cowboy hats tottered down the pavement. One of them planted her legs on either side of a drain—no, it was the drain—and she began to heave. Deep, grunting, make-way heaves.

‘My friends Polly and Millie used to throw up in that drain!’ I called out.

Her friend looked at me. I gave her a thumbs-up.

‘Jesus,’ said the friend. ‘Come on, Hayley. Let’s get you some chips.’

She put her arm around the heaving girl, who drew three wracking breaths and managed to force it all back. They wobbled away. 

We must have stayed there a while, Björn and me, because the North Star moved from one side of the Wimpy to the other. My boss, when I eventually called him back, said I couldn’t possibly have seen the North Star from under streetlights for fuck’s sake, but I did. 

When I got Björn home, his successful cosplay wife yelled at me. I said sincerely I was sorry. I told her that the city is cold and venal and a place for aliens, . that I should have stayed in Southampton, like Björn did.

‘Southampton is a city,’ Björn’s wife snapped.

‘I know—’ I started to say, but she slammed the door in my face.

Jon studied creative writing at Lancaster and English Literature in Southampton. He has been long-listed for the Fish Publishing prize, shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award, and in 2022 won second place in the University of Essex short story prize. His work has been published in the Short Fiction Journal, and last year he was invited to read as part of the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre. Alongside fiction Jon writes articles about photography, technology, art, and whatever anyone else will pay for.

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