Walking through my local town centre the other day, looking up at the dusky sky, I began to remember how it used to be in the warm summer evenings - even after nightfall. True though it may be that it has changed - half of the shopping centre has been rebuilt, and I'm pretty sure that those high-end flats weren't there - the basic layout's always been the same. My gran had a picture of the area around the marketplace in 1910, and that's hardly changed at all. There's a McDonald's there now, but I can let that go.
Just after dusk, an odd youth subculture had a tendency to emerge. I don't see any signs of it now - but, then again, I'm not really looking. It was easier to see when I was part of it; church youth heading off to Bible study clutching McFlurries or other comestibles (bought, of course, on a Sabbath), sixth formers herding into Pizza Hut and demanding a table for nine, Woodcrafters lazily slumming under the shade of a huge tree as the balmy summer nights closed in. I did a lot in my youth for someone who didn't really do much.
One evening, I was out for a walk by myself and (after about an hour or so) found myself getting into the town park (through one of the ways in; they close the park at night, but everyone knows there are methods other than gates; this entrance didn't even have a gate). I wasn't the only one: there were small gangs of young people congregated in the open spaces, a few with guitars or boomboxes playing the sort of popular music I don't enjoy. I belive, of course, that I was listening to James. On a cassette. Those were the days.
I made my way through the park (which took a while; it's a big park) and emerged into the town centre, rounding the library and down the high street, when - quite by chance - I spotted a collection of girls who I'd noticed in the park. One of them called out to me, and we got chatting - for the next hour or so, I was the token boy, and found myself actually having quite a good time. I casually mentioned my e-mail address to one of them, and the following day, I found that she'd not only remembered it, but added me on MSN.
"Random girls you met in the town?" was her prompt.
And so that's what they became. Random girls. They showed up more often than I'd originally thought - once at the Battle of the Bands organised by our local arts service (they were a band - I didn't know!), once again in the park, once on the main escalator of Oxford Circus station, once in the queue for Harry Potter, and all over what passed for social media back then. The friendliest one - short with black hair and an Offspring fixation - I even kissed once.
I was at a gig in Wood Green featuring a local band who were all friends from school (Music Man and a couple of others). Most of the people from school in my little clique were there (Einstein notwithstanding; he never came to these things); we went mental to Longview by Green Day and applauded wildly for Music Man as he was brought to his knees playing the final solo. It was, frankly, a great night.
The random girls were there. Throughout the evening, they began to trickle away steadily, until - I noticed it; she was sitting on her own in the corner - was the friendly, short, black-haired Offspring fan. I went over to enquire how she was and where all her friends were, which proved to be a mistake; they'd all had other places to be and had left her on her own, meaning that she was to make her own way back to the tube station. Not a long walk, nor a dangerous one, really, but a much nicer journey to make with someone, especially following a gig.
After the encore finished I found her sitting on the steps outside the pub and offered to walk her to the station. After the obligatory "no, you really don't have to" / "no, I want to, really" exchange typical of middle-class Londoners, we set off, Lightsinthesky fixing me with a sparkling eye and mouthing, Good one.
We made it there without incident. She thanked me for my consideration, said she'd probably see me at one of these things in the future, and gave me a hug (she came up to about my waist). I bent down, kissed her on the very top of her head, and waved her off. She left. Smiling.
I walked back to the pub, where the band were packing away their instruments and my friends were still milling about. Lightsinthesky, who had spent the weekend hitting on - and failing to get - the cousin of the Manics fan with whom I wanted to have sex, basically pounced on me as soon as I re-appeared. What was he expecting: that I would go home with her? (As it turns out... that's exactly what he was expecting.) We headed for the bus stop, Lightsinthesky torn between his final attempts to lay my friend's cousin and get a story out of me that didn't actually exist.
The following day, I headed into town, at the same time as two years prior, when I'd first met the random girls.
"What's going on between you and this girl?" said Lightsinthesky, appearing out of nowhere.
"We're friends," I said truthfully, not even having considered any particular alternative.
"Oh," he said, appearing disappointed.
There was a pause.
"Can I have her...?"
And off I walked, back into town, always ready for a new adventure.