About the Book
About the Author
Also by John Niven
Title Page
Part One: Winter
Part Two: Spring

About the Book

What do you do when the homeless man on the street you’ve just given money to thanks you by name and turns out to be one of your ‘closest’ friends, one you haven’t seen for over twenty years?

Do you take him for a hot meal and see him on his way? Give him a lot more money than you usually would? Or take him in and try to get him back on his feet? For Alan, there’s no question – it’s only natural that he’d want to see his old mate Craig off the streets, even if only for a few nights, and into some clean clothes. But what if the successful life you’ve made for yourself – good job, happy marriage, lovely kids, grand Victorian house (you did well out of the property boom, thank you very much) – is one that your old pal would quite like to have too? Even if it means taking it from you? Gradually, inevitably, mayhem ensues as Craig turns Alan’s orderly household upside down, threatening to wreck Alan’s life for good.

Following the divergent lives of two childhood friends, No Good Deed is a funny and painful examination of friendship; of the strange currents of ambition, loathing, pity and affection that flow between people over the decades; and of men getting older as they fail and succeed.

About the Author

John Niven was born in Irvine, Ayrshire. He is the author of the novella Music from Big Pink and the novels Kill Your Friends, The Amateurs, The Second Coming, Cold Hands, Straight White Male and The Sunshine Cruise Company.


Music from Big Pink

Kill Your Friends

The Amateurs

The Second Coming

Cold Hands

Straight White Male

The Sunshine Cruise Company

Title Page for No Good Deed

To Charlotte

‘No good deed goes unpunished.’

– Old proverb

‘Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s good luck.’

– F. Scott Fitzgerald




Alan Grainger was looking for another way of saying ‘disgrace’, flipping through his mental thesaurus as he crossed Charing Cross Road, heading north and west from Covent Garden. He had the little Moleskine in his inside pocket, where he had already jotted down a few lines – insults mainly – while he ate the meal.

Affordable housing, better traffic management, more late-night venues, there are many things that London badly needs right now. What it expressly doesn’t need is another ‘pop-up’ knocking out brioche-bunned designer burgers at twelve quid a throw.

Playing around with this, his main contender for the opening sentence, he cut up that little alleyway into Chinatown, the cold, late-November air suddenly full of the smell of roast duck. His plan for the rest of the afternoon was to find a quiet corner in Soho House or the Groucho and drink a pot of coffee to clear the two-beer fug out of his head while he finished writing his review. Then he’d get the train home around four, missing the worst of the rush hour. He shifted a little on his feet to try and dislodge a lurking discomfort somewhere in his bowels. Constipation. An occupational hazard.

‘Ignominy’! That was it.

He stopped on the corner of Gerrard Street and took the notebook from the warm folds of his thick winter coat, his fingers bony in the chill air.

‘A’right, mate?’

The accent Scottish, like his own.

It was one of those very cold, very bright early-winter days, the sky above London a hard, deep blue, the chimney pots and TV antennae cartoon-contrasted against it. ‘The initial ignominy …’ he scribbled, crossing out ‘disgrace’.

‘A’right, mate?’

Close by, floor level.

‘Of the thirty-five-minute wait for a table …’ The new thing – no reservations. In his late forties, this trend felt to Alan like one of the biggest backward steps mankind could make.

‘A’right, Alan?’

‘Compounded by the –’

Hang on now – why did this guy know his name?

He looked up. Or rather, down. The tramp was sitting on the pavement, his back to the wall of the cinema that formed one half of an alleyway that led into Soho proper. He was looking at Alan with intent, almost with amusement. He was eating, the tramp. Some kind of tinfoil-wrapped disgrace, some ignominy of falafel or kebab. Alan approached slowly, the notebook going into his side pocket, his right hand reflexively going into his right trouser pocket for his change.

Well, it wasn’t so unusual really. Alan’s photograph appeared regularly in the papers, passport-sized every week next to his column, even bigger next to the occasional feature or interview. He was on TV and radio now and again. Maybe this guy, hunkering down in an underpass, or on some park bench night after night, had cause to read a restaurant review or two before succumbing to a few hours of Super Lager-induced oblivion. Closing the few yards between them he had time to notice that the man appeared to be about his own age. There the similarities ended, however. The tramp wore filthy jeans, burnt-out off-brand trainers, and was apparently baked, sealed, into some kind of parka, his face framed by stringy long hair. (Long and stringy but without, Alan was dismayed to note, any of the grey that had begun to streak through his own hair.) Alan formed a kind of half-smile, a benevolent ‘good-luck’ expression, as his fist went into his pocket and came out with a mix of warm coins.

‘How’ve ye been?’ The guy said this in a casual, upbeat tone, as though they were friends who had just seen each other last week. Yes, Scottish, and about his age. There was probably a conversation about how great Scotland was looming here. How much they both missed it, both of them having made a point of being here in London.

‘Fine, fine …’ Alan said. He was looking for somewhere to drop the coins, for the guy’s cap or blanket, or the modern begging bowl – the tattered beaker from Subway, Burger King or KFC. It felt churlish to ask after the well-being of his interlocutor, who was, after all, lying in an alleyway, begging. Except Alan couldn’t see any cash receptacle. He stood there with his coin-filled hand awkwardly frozen in mid-air. Cold air. Their eyes met.

‘I thought you’d recognised me.’

This was the tramp speaking, not Alan.

‘I don’t …’ Alan began but didn’t finish. Because their eyes were locked on each other now, Alan standing over the man, half bent with his fistful of smash. He didn’t finish because the tramp’s face was coming into focus, a certain glitter in the eyes, the smile lines at the corners of the mouth, the slightly crooked front teeth, but worn down to stumps, brown and rotted since he’d last seen them. Since he’d …

‘Craig?’ Alan said, the entire word coming out of his mouth like the squiggle of a question mark.

‘Long time, pal.’

Several emotions hit him at once. Shock, obviously. Pity, the kind of deep, reflexive pity for another creature’s suffering. And, most obviously, joy. Joy that, once in a while, the universe was capable of producing such a stark symbol of your own success, of how far you’d come, of how much you’d made of the hand you’d been dealt, while others had …

For lying there on the cold W1 pavement was one of his oldest friends. A man who, when they’d been boys, had been as close to him as it was possible to be. A man who he had not seen in the flesh in nearly twenty-five years.

And now he had to ask it, churlish or not.

‘How … how’ve you been?’

‘Ach,’ Craig Carmichael said, spreading a gloved hand to indicate himself, his patch, the thin piece of cardboard that served as his house, ‘ye see it aw.’

‘Jesus, Craig. Jesus fucking Christ.’

‘Where are ye off tae?’ Craig took a bite of his tinfoil-tubed snack as he asked this. He was carrying on the conversation, well, conversationally, as though this were just another day, as though they had bumped into each other fully pinstriped at Terminal 5, two old school friends happening to intersect at an international hub of travel. Alan? Alan was having trouble staying upright. What should he do? Sit down beside him to show ‘hey, we’re no different’ or remain standing?

‘I …’ Alan struggled. ‘I’m just doing a bit of work.’


‘I … yeah.’

There was a pause. Wind gusted along the alley, seeking release. What else was there to say?

‘Listen.’ Alan looked at his watch. ‘Do … do you fancy a quick drink?’

Later, much later, Alan would have cause to wonder about how differently things would have gone if this sentence had not escaped his lips. The tiny interstices of life, moments where we think nothing much is happening, but something always is.

Obviously, given Craig’s current look, many places were out (though Alan reckoned he could probably have passed him off as a challenging British artist at the Groucho), so the Coach and Horses on Greek Street it was. They crammed around one of the small tables at the end of the bar, near the toilets, Alan with a half lager and Craig with a pint.

‘Cheers,’ Alan said.

‘Aye, cheers,’ Craig responded as their glasses touched.

Cheers. Really? It sounded mockingly inappropriate to Alan as he sipped his drink and took Craig in properly. He seemed to be wearing many layers of clothing. The soles flapped off his trainers. His bundle (sleeping bag, backpack, carrier bag) was shoved under the stool next to him.

It had taken him a fair while to roll all of this up, while Alan stood there, smiling benignly, unsure of the social etiquette of the situation. (Offer to help? Or not. He went with not.) And yet Craig didn’t look so filthy that the pub would have refused him entry. He wore a thick beard and his hair was a mess, seeming to go in five different directions at once, but it did look like it had been washed in recent memory. In truth, had he been twenty years younger, he could just about have earned a place on one of the old ‘hipster or tramp?’ tumblrs. Also, maddeningly, Craig was still thin. Maddeningly, but not inexplicably. Alan guessed one of the very few benefits of vagrant life was guaranteed calorie control. They set their glasses down and it was finally time to ask it. There was no way around it.

‘Craig, Jesus, what happened to you?’

Craig laughed. It was as if he had been expecting just this question for the last ten minutes. ‘Ah fuck, long story. When did I last see you?’

‘Oh God …’ Alan pretended to think.

In truth he knew exactly when they’d last seen each other. He could picture the moment with total clarity right now: Craig, still dripping with sweat, wearing a fresh T-shirt he’d taken from the merchandise stall, a tumbler of white wine halfway to his lips as he waved goodbye from across the packed dressing room while Alan and the boys made their way out of the door at two o’clock in the morning. ‘See ye!’ he’d shouted. It had been at the Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow University, in the spring of 1993. Craig’s band, the Rakes, just back from America, had played the opening night of their British tour there. It had been just before Alan moved down to London. There had been him and Charlie and Donald, the guys he shared the flat with on Huntley Gardens, just off Byres Road. Charlie, Donald, Craig and Alan had all gone to Glasgow Uni together. Craig had dropped out in second year, when his band had really started to take off, and now here he was, one of their own, headlining the QM, where the four of them had watched so many gigs together, speeding on the balcony, leaping in the mosh pit. Yes, Alan knew exactly when. So why pretend to think? Because you don’t want him to know you’ve often thought about him.

‘Ah … maybe in Glasgow? That time you played the QM?’

‘Aye, aye. Maybe …’ Craig said, rubbing his beard.

‘I mean, I’ve tried to find you here and there. The usual, Facebook and stuff,’ Alan said.

‘Don’t really do any of that,’ Craig said. No shit? Alan thought, looking at Craig’s tattered belongings below the stool.

‘Obviously I heard a few stories a while back, in the press and whatnot.’

Alan remembered the bits of information in the late nineties, back when he still occasionally read Q, or the NME. ‘Heroin … rehab … Los Angeles … dropped by their record company …’ They had been comforting stories at the time, when Alan had still been toiling for pennies at Time Out. For a while prior to this, Craig’s success had seemed imminent, huge and unavoidable.

Craig took a big gulp of lager. ‘“Daybreak” was a hit in America, remember? Not a smash-hit kinda hit, but big enough. We then pretty much moved the band to LA in 1994. Just touring all the time. The album started selling off the back of all this, close to a million copies. We started getting proper royalty cheques in, you know? Not just five and ten grand kinda thing, but two and three hundred thousand dollars stuff. This was twenty years ago, mind. So, ye can imagine, you knew Davy and Tam, we all went a bit mental. Then, usual story, we’re all living like guys who earn a quarter o a million dollars a year and then the next album comes out and it’s “who the fuck are you?” We sell ninety thousand. Went from nine hundred thousand to ninety overnight! No mean feat that, losing ninety per cent of your fan base from one record to the next. Anyway, we’re used to living like kings, and then, the following year, your income gets cut to fuck all, but did we start reining it all in? Did we fuck. Advances from the label, trying to write another hit, no one had paid their tax bill, it was all just the usual, y’know, like every cunt before us and every cunt after us. So, about ’99 I’m fucked, skint, end up working in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, trying to get another band together, still battering the nose up, bit of smack here and there. That went on for a few years, then, ach, there were a couple of women, things didnae work out. I moved back to Scotland about, what, don’t know, 2005 or 2006? Something like that. Ma maw died –’ Alan interjected the obligatory ‘I’m sorry’, but Craig waved it off – ‘and I got a wee bit of money, kept me going for a few years, but I soon got through it, and the drinking was bad by this point. I came down here to try and get out the circle I was in back in Ardgirvan, bad crowd, ye know? Smack. Ranta Campbell and they kinda boys? I was staying with a girl I knew in Tottenham. She chucked me out after a few months. I remember, the first night I slept rough – a lot of folk can always remember this – I had about thirty quid in my pocket. It was about enough for a hostel for the night or I could have got a single on the coach back to Glasgow and done what? Fuck knows. It was September, no that cold, so I walked up to the park and got in ma sleeping bag under a bush – I was steaming of course – and then next thing I knew I woke up about seven in the morning. I’d got through the night, ye know? It wisnae that bad. So you just, ye know, ye find out you can do it. I went and sat near a cashpoint and by lunchtime I had about four quid. Enough for a sandwich and a couple o cans. That … that was about five years ago. And here we are.’ Craig drained his glass.

Alan shook his head and looked at the clock behind the bar. It had taken just over three minutes for Craig to recap the last twenty-four years of his life.

‘Ach, fuck it,’ Craig said. ‘Ye win some, ye lose some. It wisnae all bad. Had some good times along the way.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Alan said.

As the words came out of his mouth he realised that he meant them. He had wished ill on Craig many times when they were younger. He had envied his looks, his talent, his musicianship, his way with women, his confidence, his popularity. The young Alan Grainger had very much wanted to be Craig Carmichael. But now, today, as they both approached fifty and the results were in, he was very, very glad to be Alan Grainger.

‘Ye know, I’ve seen ye around a few times,’ Craig said.


‘Ach, Dean Street, coming in and out of the Groucho and the like. It’s a good touch there sometimes. Some steaming rich bastard handing ye a twenty-pound note, stuff like that.’ Alan often noticed, and funded, the bums around the doorway to the Groucho. But you didn’t really notice them, did you? You averted your gaze.

‘Why didn’t you say hello?’ Alan asked.

‘Come tae fuck, Alan,’ Craig said. ‘Ye were with people. What was I going tae say? “A’right, Al? Mind me? Craig Carmichael fae Ardgirvan? We went tae Ravenscroft Academy together? Ye got a couple o quid ye can spare us?”’

‘Why did you decide to say hello today?’

Craig shrugged. ‘Ye were on yer own. Ye stopped near me tae write in yer daft wee notebook.’ Alan smiled. But something about the quick slap of that ‘daft’, about the fact that, cracked and weathered though the skin around them was, Craig’s blue eyes could still cut through him … unsettled Alan. Made him feel sixteen again, like the intervening years had not leavened all the justice that they should have. ‘Anyway,’ Craig said. ‘Ma shout. What are ye having?’

‘Craig, honestly, let me –’

‘Naw. Ma round. I can get it.’

‘I ken, but –’

‘Fuck sake, Alan.’

‘Sorry, aye. If you’re sure, can ye get us a half of … ah fuck it. Get us a pint.’

As Alan watched Craig fight his way in at the bar, getting a couple of odd looks from some of the afternoon drinkers, but no trouble getting served (the Coach and Horses had surely seen a lot worse), he thought to himself, Aye? Ye? Ken?

When had he last talked like this? Katie would be wondering what had happened to him when he got home tonight.


‘Oh please, Mum.’

‘For God’s sake, Melissa.’

They were in the kitchen. Katie Grainger looked up from the colander of kale she was rinsing and regarded her daughter again. They were engaged in a completely normal mother-and-sixteen-year-old-daughter negotiation: the amount of flesh Melissa would be allowed to display at an upcoming fancy-dress party. Right now she looked to Katie like a cross between an underfed sex worker and Courtney Love at the tail end of a three-day bender. She was wearing a kind of witch’s outfit, but one that was deeply décolleté – almost to the navel – and had a hemline that terminated just below the knickers Katie prayed Melissa was wearing. The tops of her black stockings were clearly visible. ‘What I want to know,’ Katie said, emptying the gleaming emerald leaves into a saucepan, ‘is when did fancy dress come to mean some kind of prostitute convention? I mean – kids used to dress up as, I don’t know, cartoon characters and stuff …’

‘You want me to go as Elsa from Frozen?’

‘Oh, it’d probably have to be some sort of sexy Elsa, wouldn’t it? She’d be in a basque and suspenders.’

‘Jesus, Mum, Jasmine Holland is wearing –’

‘Yes, and if –’ With superhuman effort, Katie stopped herself from saying the dread sentence involving Jasmine Holland, a bridge and some jumping. ‘Look, Melissa, this is all moot. If your father comes home and sees you in that he’ll hit the bloody roof.’

‘I cannot wait to go to university …’ Melissa said as she stormed out, her spiked heels putting little dings in Katie’s lovely reclaimed oak floor.

‘Then I’d go to my room and hit the books rather than Facebook, darling,’ Katie trilled after her. Column due tomorrow, she thought. The oversexualisation of teens seen through the prism of fancy dress? Not bad. She made a note in the ever-open ‘Column Ideas’ file on her laptop.

Katie was standing at the island in the middle of the large kitchen-cum-family room. Behind her was brushed steel – ovens at waist and head height, six-burner Viking range, the double doors of the vast Sub Zero – and the black Aga. The island itself had two sinks and a pro-kitchen coil tap. (Grohe, 789 quid.) Beyond the island was the circular dining table and chairs and, beyond that, where Melissa had just been standing, the conservatory/family area, sofas surrounded by glass and greenery, the French windows opening directly onto the tiered garden. Like many other Georgian and Victorian properties in this part of Buckinghamshire, much rearwards extension work had been done – from the wall of refrigeration behind her to the glass of the French windows was a distance of some fifty feet.

Katie looked at the clock. Nearly five. Could she reach into the glass-fronted wine cooler yet and uncork a bottle of Sauvignon or white burgundy on the basis that she’d be needing it soon for the chicken? No, have some tea and hold off. As she turned the kettle on she heard the words ‘REACH FOR THE SKY!’ and turned to see Sophie pointing Woody right at her, the last of the string disappearing into the back of the lawman.

‘You. Come here,’ Katie said to her younger daughter very seriously, beckoning her. Sophie trotted over, giggling, knowing that her mother was only ever very serious when she was joking. Katie plucked her up and swung her onto the counter. ‘You have been found guilty of …’ she waited, Sophie’s eyes widening in anticipation, ‘… being too cute!’ Katie dug her thumbs into the fleshy parts of Sophie’s thighs and Sophie shrieked with delight, struggling, her bare heels thrumming against the cupboard door. ‘STOP! STOP! MERCY PLEASE, DEAR MOTHER!’ It was a routine Katie had taught her, she had to beg for mercy very formally. Katie relented and embraced the child, both of them giggling now. As Katie often reflected when dealing with her seven-year-old daughter straight after dealing with her sixteen-year-old: where’s the bloody aspic? Melissa had been such good fun when she was Sophie’s age. And soon Sophie would be Melissa’s age, which would make Katie in her mid-fifties and then … Christ.

‘Mummy? What’s wrong with Mel?’

‘Oh, she’s fine.’

‘She slammed her door.’

‘Well, that’s a bit naughty, isn’t it?’

Sophie nodded. ‘It’s not very kind, is it?’

‘No, it’s not. Now – have you done your homework?’ Sophie shook her head. ‘Run along and do it. The Simpsons will be on soon.’

‘Doh!’ Sophie said, jumping down and running off. She stopped in the doorway. ‘When will Daddy be home?’

‘Soon, darling, soon. Homework.’

Today had been a London day for Alan, a review. Katie wrote her column from home, perhaps managing only two or three London days a month to Alan’s seven or eight on average.

They’d been out here in Marham for seven years now, since just before Tom started secondary school. Tom – their eldest – a gap-toothed twelve-year-old when they bought this place, now a strapping, swaggering brick shithouse, a fridge-clearing wonder of appetite and disorganisation. Katie wondered what he was up to right now, up there in Glasgow. In the library hopefully. Or the reading room. (Yeah, right, a voice told her.) He’d only gone back a few weeks ago, after the eternity of the summer holidays. The second year of his history degree. Still, she didn’t really worry about Tom. He had ever been a solid, fairly sensible kid. Melissa? Now that was a whole other deal. To have children was to have your heart walk around outside your body forever. Who said that? Joan Didion? She’d look it up later. Mmm. Joan Didion, now there’s a thought. Is it the anniversary of her death? Her birth? Her publishing something seminal or other? Her having her fucking hair done, her bush trimmed? Anything Katie could somehow wring seven hundred words out of.

Seven years out here. It had been the schools argument and the ‘more space’ argument and the fact that the fast train to Marylebone only took thirty minutes and whatever. Actually Katie hadn’t needed much persuading. The kids had been nine and twelve. She’d turned forty. She’d felt like she’d had a fair run at London. Alan had needed a little more persuading. In the end, when their neighbours Jane and Bob had told them about their twelve-year-old son coming home from the local comprehensive, kissing his teeth and talking about ‘me Nandos, seen?’, that had done it.

And, like many of their generation, she and Alan had been the jolly beneficiaries of a massive, hilarious joke, one cracked by money.

Their first two-bedroom flat in West Hampstead: £120,000 in 1995, when they were still in their twenties. They’d scraped the twelve-grand deposit together from their savings and a ‘loan’ from her parents.

They sold it for £200,000 in 2001, the year Melissa was born. They’d moved to Queen’s Park, buying a big three-bedroom, private-garden maisonette for £280,000. Well, Queen’s Park was a bit of a joke back then.

It wasn’t a joke when they sold the place five years later for half a million, using the profit to buy a run-down semi-detached Victorian house on the borders of Brondesbury Park for £750,000. They’d done the usual middle-class bits: seagrass matting, a couple of real fires, new kitchen and bathrooms and slathered the walls in Farrow & Ball. (Around this time they’d also come into a nice chunk of money when Alan’s first cookbook, The Pause Button Gourmet: Cooking Like in the Movies – a throwaway collection of recipes inspired by scenes in classic films: Dustin Hoffman’s French toast from Kramer vs. Kramer, the pasta sauce from Goodfellas, Paul Newman’s omelette recipe from The Color of Money and so forth – spiralled high into the Christmas best-seller lists.)

They sold the Brondesbury house in 2010 for 1.2 mil.

Basically Katie’s father lent them six grand in 1995 and, hey presto, fifteen years later, they were property millionaires.

Their talent? Their stroke-of-genius masterplan? Being born in the late sixties and working in London with half-decent salaries in the 1990s. So here they were, not even fifty yet and mortgage-free in their five-thousand-square-foot detached Georgian with two acres of land half an hour from central London. The kids all had a bedroom, they had a huge en suite and walk-in closet, there were four bathrooms and Alan’s study. Katie hadn’t wanted one – she liked to work at the kitchen table, surrounded by pots and pans and cooking and the coming and goings of children and, invariably, workmen. (There was always something being done.)

Katie spared a thought for the average 26-year-old trying to buy a nice two-bedroom flat in West Hampstead now, trying to buy a nine-hundred-grand place on a forty-grand salary. Mmm, seven hundred words on the difficulties of getting on the London property ladder for the young. No, she couldn’t possibly go there again. Editor would shoot her in the head. Balls. She turned the oven on and sat down at her laptop at the kitchen table. The clock now said 5.16. The glass-fronted wine cooler stared at her balefully.

Her phone started ringing. Alan.


It’s all a bit different, Craig thought, looking around. Then again, he couldn’t be too sure, as he’d been out of his mind when he’d been in the Groucho a couple of times before, back in the early nineties, when record companies had been romancing his band. ‘My friend’s an artist,’ Alan had said as he signed him in at reception – Craig standing there feeling self-conscious, holding his bundle – before he went off to make a phone call, leaving Craig in a corner downstairs with a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket and a menu for bar snacks. Bar snacks? Jesus Christ, eight quid for some kind of tiny Scotch egg? Mind you, getting some food in might not be a bad idea. They’d wound up having four pints in the Coach and Horses and now here they were, starting on the white wine at five. As a rule, Craig tried not to mix his drinks these days. He generally began his slow intake of strong lager around noon, usually consuming between six and eight cans of Super Lager or Special Brew before bedding down for the night around midnight. He’d always used to wonder why tramps drank that stuff. Now that he was one the answer was clear: four 440ml cans from Tesco cost just over seven quid. Nearly two litres of a drink that weighed in at nearly 9 per cent ABV? Almost as strong as some wines? That was a no-brainer.

He tried to remember where they’d sat when he’d been here last. Over there near the piano? There had been their manager, an A&R guy and some girls from the record company and cocaine in the toilets downstairs. In fact he seemed to remember he’d ended up in the toilets with one of the record company girls and the cocaine. She’d been wearing dungarees (in fairness it was 1992) and he remembered her hurriedly unpopping the clasps and turning around in the cramped cubicle, her face pressed against the top of the cistern they’d just been snorting lines from. He’d been twenty-three years old and he thought it would never end.

Craig snapped out of his reverie as he saw Alan coming back to the table, weaving slightly unsteadily across the room. Christ, the fucking belly on the cunt. Craig still had the same size waist he’d had at age seventeen.

Alan exhaled as he lowered himself into the chair next to Craig, making a kind of moaning sound.

‘Ye want to watch that,’ Craig said.


‘Making noises as ye sit down. Proper pensioner stuff that, pal.’

‘Ha! Right enough. Cheers.’

Craig picked up his wine glass and clinked it against Alan’s. He hadn’t drunk wine in ages. It was OK. ‘Everything OK?’


‘Yer phone call?’

‘Oh, yeah, fine. Just telling Katie I’d be a bit late home.’

‘So, where is home?’

‘Marham? In Buckinghamshire?’

In the pub they had mostly talked about Craig. Alan felt it might have been inappropriate to talk about himself. About his career, his money, his property, his beautiful upper-class English wife and his well-mannered expensively educated children. About the incredibly kind run of cards life had dealt him, kings, queens, aces. Meanwhile, there was Craig, looking at an endless succession of twos and threes, of jokers and wild cards. But he could see there was no avoiding it. ‘We moved out of London, oh, seven years ago. We’d both turned forty, we’d had a good run of it here, but there comes a point you want to gear down a little, you know?’ Idiot, Alan thought to himself. ‘You know?’ Yeah, like Craig knew. Craig, who’d spent the night in an alleyway off Piccadilly Circus, using everything he owned as a pillow. Whose life had been reduced to a daily scramble to get a tenner. Ten pounds. A cab fare. A pack of cigarettes. A tip to the doorman. A couple of magazines. A single gin and tonic at the bar here.

But, if Craig was offended, he didn’t show it. He just nodded and sipped his wine and said, ‘So, how long you and Katie been together then?’

‘God, me and Katie,’ he said as he refilled his glass. Craig’s was still pretty full. ‘Just over twenty years? We met in ’94. Right after I moved down here.’


‘Three. Tom’s nineteen, Melissa’s sixteen and Sophie’s just turned seven.’ Sophie – their little afterthought. That night in Antigua. Too much local beer. Too much rum. ‘You never had kids then, Craig?’

‘Oh aye.’

‘Really? You were married?’ As soon as he said this Alan realised how incredibly 1952 it sounded.

‘Fuck, naw. There’s two that I know about. One in LA and one back in Glasgow.’

‘And do you ever … ?’

Craig shook his head. ‘Wouldn’t be much use tae them, would I? Fuck-up like me? Naw, best out of it.’

‘Christ, sorry.’


‘Maybe it’s not too late, you could get back in touch? These days it’s not so hard to track people down …’

‘C’mon, Alan. Don’t talk shite now.’

Craig reached for his wine and Alan reached for a change of gear. ‘So, what about music? You never went anywhere without a guitar in your hands. Don’t you ever play?’ Alan remembered Craig in the common room at school, playing a note-perfect rendition of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ on an acoustic while a ring of girls watched spellbound.

‘Naw. Not in ages and ages.’

‘Is it, is it too painful to play? Does it bring back, you know … ?’

‘Nah. Just never near a guitar these days. How about you?’

‘I’ll pick up Tom’s now and then. I was never, you know, never as good as you.’

‘Ach, you weren’t bad …’

They both knew this was a lie: Alan in Craig’s tiny bedroom back in that pebble-dashed council house in Ardgirvan, in the early eighties, watching Craig’s fingers fly up and down the fretboard as he played seemingly everything by the Clash, the Jam, the Buzzcocks (then, later, the Smiths, Orange Juice, Lloyd Cole) on his Hondo Les Paul copy, the wee practice amp at full roar, Alan trying to emulate and follow, but each of his fingers a black pudding, a sausage roll, a flaccid penis next to Craig’s trilling digits as they knocked out nimble lead runs, string bending, hammer on and vibrato. The way Alan could eventually master a simple chord sequence if he did nothing else but listen to the record and slavishly copy it for two weeks. Meanwhile there was Craig – playing along note-for-note with songs he was hearing for the first time. Alan had finally, briefly, made it into an early line-up of Craig’s band. On bass. (And, Alan suspected, that was simply because his parents were the only ones who had the money to buy him a decent amp.)

‘Aye, right,’ Alan said, ‘now who’s talking shite?’ They both laughed. Alan was enjoying talking Scottish again. ‘You kicked me out of the band for Jim Rankin first chance you got!’

‘Fuck, wee Jim,’ Craig said. ‘Good bassist but a total mental.’

‘He sent me a friend request on Facebook a few years back.’

‘Mind the time he shat in a Kwenchy Kup and tried tae launch it aff the window of the headmaster’s office but ended up wi half of it all over him?’

Alan sprayed wine across the table as the two of them collapsed, broken with laughter. ‘Aye, aye, fuck! At the Christmas disco? He was stumbling around screaming, covered –’

‘In his own shite! Oh man. Wonder what happened tae him?’

‘I think he said he was manager of that big B&Q out by the bypass to Kilmarnock.’

A pause. They looked each other in the eye and collapsed laughing again. Craig was slapping his thigh manically, just like he always used to do, and suddenly the years had fallen away and they were sixteen again, cracking each other up in class, ripping the piss out of someone, dogging school to listen to records and make prank phone calls to random numbers.

‘Oh, Jesus Christ. Man …’ Alan said as he reached for the bottle again and was surprised to find it empty. He signalled for the waitress, the sweet little one he liked. Clara? That was it.

‘Having fun, Alan?’ she said as she approached.

‘Clara, yeah. Sorry, are we too loud?’

‘Of course not.’

‘This is my friend Craig. We haven’t see in each other in a while.’

‘Hi.’ She beamed at Craig. ‘What can I get you boys?’

‘Same again please,’ Alan said.

She took the empty bottle from the ice bucket and wiggled off towards the bar.

‘Is there anywhere we can smoke?’ Craig asked.

‘Err, sure. Come on and we’ll go up to the exercise yard.’

The Groucho’s smoking area did indeed resemble a small prison exercise yard. The two of them staggered out, holding brimming glasses, both surprised to find that twilight had been replaced by total darkness. There were a few people scattered around, smoking, drinking, talking. Craig produced a ten-pack of some low-rent cigarettes – Raffles or Piccadilly or Mayfair or something – and proffered one of the two remaining fags to Alan.

‘God – no. I haven’t smoked in years,’ Alan said.

Craig shrugged and lit his as he asked, ‘Do you ever see anyone else from back home?’

‘Nah,’ Alan said. ‘Oh, apart from Charlie and Donald.’

‘Oh aye?’

‘Aye, we go off on a golf trip once or twice a year. Gordon Miller and Alec McLean come too sometimes.’

‘Fuck. All the guys ye went tae uni with?’

‘Pretty much. Ye should –’ Alan was about to say ‘Ye should come along sometime’ – he remembered Craig as being a decent golfer when they were young. Then he remembered the situation they were in. The fact that Craig was unlikely to have a set of clubs tucked into that bundle downstairs, or a spare few hundred quid for the hotels and the green fees and the sumptuous meals and expensive malt whiskies they consumed in the evenings. He modulated it to ‘Ye should see the state of Gordon these days. Got to be twenty stone …’

‘Fucking hell.’

‘Ah’m telling ye.’

‘Fat bastard.’

‘And Charlie’s bald as a coot.’

‘Is that right?’

‘Donald hasn’t aged a day. I swear to God, there’s a portrait in an attic somewhere that looks like fucking Methuselah.’ He drained his glass as Craig laughed. ‘You know what, can I? I’ll buy some more …’ He reached for Craig’s last cigarette.

‘Sure …’

He took a deep puff. Oh baby. That was the real stuff. The headrush was considerable and he stood swaying on the balls of his feet. Smoking – where have you been? What harm could you possibly do me? It was bliss. Alan had been wasting his life with children and family and writing columns and books and talking crap on TV shows when he could have been attending to his true calling – hanging out smoking and drinking in private members’ clubs with Craig Carmichael. The split second it took Alan to entertain this thought also gave him time to realise how very, very drunk he was. He also realised that someone was saying hello to him. ‘Oh hi!’

‘Alan! I thought that was you. How are you, darling?’ She kissed him wetly, drunkenly, on both cheeks.

‘Great, great. How’s tricks?’ He had no idea who the woman was. She was early thirties, very attractive. Undoubtedly in TV or publishing. Use the oldest trick in the book? Why not. ‘This is my friend Craig …’

Craig held his hand out. ‘Amanda Reed,’ she said, taking it with some curiosity. That was it – Amanda. Development executive at some production company. They’d tried to work up a pilot with him a few years back. A cookery show, obviously, based around Pause Button. Nothing came of it. How many cheeks had he air-kissed in here? How many drunken ideas had been hatched and meetings arranged that nothing ever came of? ‘Craig’s a writer,’ Alan said for no good reason he could figure out.

‘Really?’ Amanda Reed said.

‘Aye,’ Craig said, not missing a beat. They made an odd pair, Alan and Craig, one short, one tall. One with a pure wool overcoat draped over his shoulders. One in a filthy parka, matted jeans, stubbly beard and battered trainers. Yes, come to think of it, he really did look like a writer.

‘Any good TV ideas? We’re always looking.’ Amanda hiked her bag up over her shoulder.

‘A good one actually,’ Craig said. ‘Scripted reality show about oil rig workers in the North Sea.’

Alan found his eyebrows heading up towards his hairline.

‘How interesting. Here …’ She produced the inevitable business card. ‘Give me a call and we’ll set up a meeting. Must dash – bloody dinner.’ She smacked a kiss on Alan’s cheek again. ‘Alan, let’s get together soon. Craig – lovely to meet you.’ She disappeared back into the club.

Alan looked at Craig, who was turning the business card over in his hands. His fingernails, Alan noticed, were absolutely black. ‘Scripted fucking reality show?’ Alan said.

‘Ach, I read about them in this bit of the Guardian I found in Green Park the other day,’ Craig said and, once again, the two of them were falling around laughing. ‘Oh man, that … that’s too good. Right, one for the road?’

They had a whisky for the road back in the downstairs bar and another one after that, at which point Alan found himself buying two packs of Marlboro Lights and giving one to Craig and then, finally, he looked at his watch: 7.20. Shit. Where the fuck had the last five hours gone? He’d told Katie he’d back for dinner at eight. If he left right now and got a cab straight away he could just make the 7.45 fast train that got in at 8.10. ‘Fuck,’ Alan said. ‘Got to make a move.’

‘Nae bother,’ Craig said.

Out on the pavement it was cold, their breath forming in silvery clouds out on Dean Street.

‘Well,’ Alan said. ‘Look, Craig, it’s been great catching up again.’

‘Aye, thanks very much for all the drinks and whatnot.’

Gimme your numberLet’s have dinner sometime