I shouldn't have flinched. That's just what he wants to happen, when people catch sight of his deformity.
Missing the fourth finger on - not one - but both hands.
Fallen into his trap. He spies straight away. Our eyes connect. Bugger. Now he has a license to engage.
A stinking tramp, or whatever you want to call him. I'm cold, rapidly sobering-up and needing a piss. Thought the Oystercards kept them out. Yeah, I know I'm only ever one contract away from it myself, but it hardly makes prospect any more attractive.
"Where are you going?"
[Look just PISS OFF I'm hardly going to tell YOU am I. Train in 4 minutes.]
Erm, I don't know. Nowhere.
[Sorry we are NOT having a conversation OK]
"Aah... All that" - he waves at my get-up - "and you don't even know where you're going."
Just what is it that makes homeless people think it automatically qualifies them as a fucking philosospher? And why do drunk people all have the same accent?
Rewind to earlier in the evening - the Inevitable Black Tie Do, two weeks ago. Hotel on the outskirts of London, midnight minibus booked back to the tube station, make your own way from there. Unless you're staying in the hotel. In the foyer, there's a deer's head mounted on the wall. Thankfully it's dead.
I found out to late that she too was going. Her name hadn't been on the list I'd seen. If I'd known, maybe I'd have stayed away.
"Do you know a secret?"
[PLEASE just go away. Train in 3 minutes]
"If you tell me a secret, I'll tell you mine."
Fuck it. OK, I sigh. I will. You see this, all this around you. That's it. That's all there is. There's no God. It's the best news ever. It means no-one's watching.
He catches his breath.
"Yeah... actually, yeah that IS a good secret."
Bucks fizz from a GOD I HATE THIS PLEASE CANT WE JUST tray. Group photo before the meal. Camera as torture. Then the strange seating plan puts me opposite fuck-knows-who. It's meant to be boy-girl-boy-girl but there's not enough girls to go round.
Thankfully she's out of my eyeline. Makes things easier. Means I'm actually able to enjoy myself, whole seconds when I don't think about her, what she's wearing, who she's talking to.
He squints and points like a man accustomed:
"Now you listen to mine. What if I told you there was a way to control people's minds, a secret way into their heads?"
You mean like... religion?
"No, fuck off, like a secret password. That opens up their head, hypnotised, make em do anything you like. It's built into all of us, just nobody knows it's there."
Right, yeah, so what's the magic word?
"Don't be fucken stupid. People are from different countries ain't they? Languages are all different. Words wouldn't work, it's more... a way of touching someone in the right combination, that undoes the lock."
Shit. He's actually thought about this. Train in 1 minute.
I always hate Black Tie. And this one a mixture of real and fake bow-ties.
The only point in wearing a real bow-tie is so that you can undo it later. An undone bow tie round the neck, coupled with an air of meticulously fake, squandered elegance. And we can all be Daniel Craig for the evening. Even knew someone who'd carry two - a ready-made round his neck and real one in his pocket. Swap them round at the right point in the evening.
My own secret - a real bow-tie cut at the back for velcro. Tie it right, round your leg, then slip it on. All the authenticity for a fraction of the frigging about. The girls are making very different fists of the whole cocktail dress thing; suppose us boys have it easy, only having to worry about what stupid rag we tie round our necks.
She looks great. Heartbreakingly beautiful, I tell her. She knows.
"I'm fucken serious. They stroke you behind the ears, hold your hands a certain way, click their tongue to special little tune. I saw it once, didn't get all the details."
He said "They". I wish I was writing this down.
"But they don't get me - Soon as I found out I got myself immunised!"
He holds up his filthy, disfigured hands and pisses himself laughing - or laughs himself pissing, who knows by the smell of him. Two little stumps like corks wedged not-quite-back into the tops of their bottles.
PLEASE STAND BACK TRAIN APPROACHING So - he can't make it work, and it won't work on him. The neat non-falsifiability that completes the delusion, renders it unassailable. And I'd fallen for it. I retreat into the train and my thoughts. Don't wave.
Evening's end. Finally. But no-one's begging me to stay, so I left. Twat.
The borrowed cigarette is making me want to spew. I'm glad of that; the years of training myself to hate them have paid off. Thankfully it's dead. I wedge the unfinished stub in the corner of the deer's mouth and walk out the door towards the minibus.
Then from the side, round the wall, a knowing, girlish giggle.
I remember cheaplaughing at a stunts-gone-wrong video. Poor Spanky (was it you, Spanky?) leaping between two tall buildings on his motorcyle. Sails offbeam on the landing, square-hitting a concrete wall so hard it rips_the_aorta_from_the_top_of_his_heart.
She's with him. HIM GOD NO ANYONE BUT Can't Look Can't Look NO IT IS
That one giggle and I'm there, pillion with Spanky and his sickening, suddening scrunch. Not enough girls to go round.
The carriage is warm and helps with the piss-needing. People love hacks. Hints, tricks. Back doors and unfair advantages. Lifehacks and lovehacks. Well I'm going to compile a site full of spoofhacks. Stupid tricks that don't work but gullible people will try.
In Wagamamas, scrawl "099" on your placemat and get an 10% staff discount. Hold the button for your floor and the lift will ignore other hails. Believe in a God and you won't really die. Punch in Coke's Atlanta zipcode and get free cans from the machine.
30301, since you ask. But what if you could hack into people? A backdoor in the brainware - a peoplehack. Coded into each one of us. No. That would need an intelligent designer... Next.
They parted as I passed. Embarassed and me catching them.
And about five minutes out, the dreadful realisation that I'm the only single person on the bus. Yup, all these other sad fuckers got an excuse. Got someone waiting at home. But I hadn't booked a room in the hotel (Stupid! Stupid!) while most of the younger ones had. So in that fucking singin laughing minibus I am fucking dying. Killed by a giggle.
She's with HIM! NOW!
Thoughts of them together in a way I'll happy-never-after.
Tube station soon and the sobering pisscold platform. And it was there, with 6 minutes to the train, that I met my rancid, quadradactyl friend.
And then the paranoia, the lovesick-adrenaline, the self-hatred finally hammered the evening's jigsaw to fit. I run off at the next stop, retching next to a pillar, coughing watery phlegm onto the platform and wishing and wishing.
Looking down at it, heart-shaped. Spanked. Stuffed. Undone.
The giggle. When I'd walked past.
He had been stroking her just behing the left earlobe. They'd slowly, reluctantly separated, hands smoothing along each others' arms, parting like pizza until only their fingers touched. Until he was just holding her two fourth fingers.
And clicking his tongue.