After a decade working in the rarefied world of Formula 1, Spider, a friend of mine from cookery class, had grown weary. Weary of all the travel, the exotic locations, the people, the parties, the free food and fine wines.
‘I’m quitting,’ he announced one chilly afternoon in the close season, as we sat by a warm air vent on the balcony of the Royal Festival Hall. ‘I’m a scientist. I cannot be tied down like this.’
‘I thought you were an inventor,’ I said.
‘I am one half inventor, one half scientist and one half mathematician.’
‘What will you live on?’ asked Osman, another regular on these stolen afternoons.
‘I shall finish the house and take a lodger,’ he declared. Spider’s well-paid job had allowed him to buy a two-bedroom Georgian house in Bermondsey, which he’d been ‘busy’ fixing up for almost three years.
‘The only thing you’ve ever finished is a pint,’ said Dirty South, but Spider ignored him.
‘I just need to be free. Free to do whatever I like. Whose round is it?’
‘Yours,’ we said.
‘Brilliant,’ he said, and proceeded to crawl through the air vent to the bar.
True to his word, Spider handed in his notice and as a first summer of freedom approached he compiled a list of things he was planning to do, which he pinned to his hall noticeboard. It read:
Organise sexy girly pyjama party
Spend more time in pubs
Become a wine cunt
The last two, at least, went very well.
Around the same time, Osman, a media high-flyer, also decided to quit. But it wasn’t his job he was quitting, it was his marriage. He had met someone else, in the lavs at work, he said. Romance had blossomed and he had been obliged to pack a knapsack and leave the marital home.
‘Are you still looking for a lodger, mate?’ Osman had texted Spider.
‘No, I’ve found one,’ replied Spider. ‘You.’
That summer was a fine festival of fun and looolz, not to mention an orgy of consumption. Countless visits to local pubs ensued: The old Wheatsheaf in Borough Market (where we first encountered a certain Half-life), the Lord Clyde, the Old King’s Head, the Royal Oak and plucky newcomer, The Rake. Delicious and exotic food was purchased from the market and at the end of each evening our two heroes and anyone they had collected would return to Spider’s house to cook, carouse and continue the party in his basement kitchen and adjoining snug.
The snug was decorated in a bold cacophony of mismatched styles, combining contemporary flock wallpaper, a flat screen TV and a feature floor lamp with a maroon Chesterfield sofa and a 17th century green-leather-topped mahogany writing desk. A flamboyant chandelier and paintings in heavy gilded frames completed the look, which we called ‘Boy Georgian’.
Along the shelves above the desk, a collection of fine plonk was burgeoning, featuring Châteaux Lafite, Haut Brion and Mouton Rothschild. Visiting auctions to buy furniture, Spider’s eye had been taken by wine lots – possibly unwisely, after the boozy lunches to which he had quickly become accustomed.
‘I’ve just spent two grand on wine!’ he told us in King’s Head Yard, one time.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Dirty South, ‘That’ll last you till Christmas!’
‘I doubt it,’ said Spider, ‘I only got six bottles.’
Wine consumption effectively doubled Osman’s rent, as he invariably came home after hours and, fancying just one more glass of ‘something nice’, would be unable to resist temptation. ‘It’s amazing how delicious the Margaux are after six pints of bitter,’ he told us.
At weekends larger affairs took place, as the house was thrown open to all. The sitting room was cleared for dancing and the garden for al fresco drinks. Once, on a Sunday afternoon, Mrs Raider and I arrived to find a jazz band playing in the snug, zebra and kudu grilling on the barbeque and a uniformed sommelier conducting a wine tasting in the kitchen.
‘It’s like The Great Gatsby,’ said Mrs Raider. Indeed, that same evening a wild-eyed visitor to the house confided in me that she had never actually met the host.
‘Some say he doesn’t exist,’ she whispered. I didn’t have the heart to tell her he was upstairs performing, at that very moment, a horizontal duet with the lead from a West End musical.
The apotheosis of this party period was, I think, when we discovered Spider had installed a toilet in his larder, so people didn’t have to traipse up two floors for a pee. The bowl and cistern were bright yellow and Aussie Pete christened Spider ‘the Man with the Golden Dunny’.
This new addition didn’t prevent Dirty South puking up 200 quid’s worth of claret into Spider’s leather satchel early one morning due to an inability to move, possibly caused by the ball of hashish that had been rolling around on the Persian rug all night. And when someone kicked over the barbecue in an argument about health and safety, we felt the end may be nigh.
Firstly, Osman landed a job in Frankfurt, where he was to relocate with his new soul mate and soon-to-be second wife, the start of many years of globe-hopping, in a ceaseless quest to see who could offer him the most ridiculous salary. Shortly afterwards, in contrast, Spider announced he was broke.
‘I don’t know where it’s all gone,’ he said, sitting in his new 17th century French walnut wing armchair, smoking a cigar.
‘A mystery,’ I agreed. ‘So will you have to go back to work?’
‘Sod that. I’ve got a plan.’
If one spends enough time in pubs, eventually one will meet people from all callings, though it should be said they may not represent the elite of their respective professions. Spider put together a crack team of semi-functioning alcoholics who became his lawyer, accountant and mortgage broker. Known to us as Hook, Line and Stinker they had, to be fair, within a couple of months remortgaged the bejesus out of his house and refilled Spider’s coffers from the magic money tree that was property in the noughties.
But the party was over.
Spider felt the emptiness of the house acutely. Now, on returning from the pub from an important meeting with ‘The Board’, the lights were out. There was no one to coax into one last vintage, with whom to share a shoe as an ashtray or fry up the last of the ostrich.
‘It’s not the same,’ he lamented, leaning on the old street post outside the Wheatsheaf. The pub had closed to accommodate Network Rail building work, but we still leant on the post occasionally, for old times’ sake. ‘I’m quitting.’
‘Will you have to go back to work?’ I asked.
‘Sod that. I’ve got a plan. I shall finish the house and let it out.’
‘But where will you live?’
‘I shall be a citizen of the world, Raider. You see, I realise now that I must travel, visit exotic locations, meet people, party, eat and drink the finest food and wine!’
And with that, he was gone. Well, two years later, anyway.