– We’re in hiding, says the girl.
The sliding doors, all galvanised steel and rivets and padlocks, rumble as she pulls them back. Inside the Con Club, the lights are already on.
She brushes a lock of fair hair out of her eye, touches Simon on the hand, one step short of holding it. She leads him into the building, once a factory unit.
– It was really cheap, she explains. They don’t care what we do with it, as long as we manage to get the rent to them on time.
– Doesn’t it look bad? For the businesses, I mean?
– Most of them have moved out to the enterprise zone, she says. Or they've gone out of business altogether. They just want to break even these days.
Someone painted the foyer with schoolroom flowers, butterflies and birds. They walk into a sort of reception area. Behind the glass, a girl in black with an angular, birdlike face heats beans on a gas stove, while another girl, short, skinny, brown-haired, washes the dishes in a basin retrofitted into the other side of the reception desk. The bird-faced girl turns around, momentarily collects her hair in her hands, behind her head, lets it go, sees Simon and his guide, smiles, gives a little wave, goes back to the beans.
– I'm Diane, by the way.
Footnote: That's Sarah by the beans. Her character is called “Sarah”.
Diane is the name of Simon's wife. This Diane is a supporting character, not a player, which means she is fair game for any of the players to control. They have decided that Ryan will be the one who sets the scene, and he is the one who creates the setting. They are all younger, student age, and the same age, which could never have happened in the real world, since a good seven years divide the eldest, Ryan, and the youngest, Sarah.
Simon feels the obligation straight away to write “Diane” on the “I love” line.
She turns, offers him a hand. They shake.
Diane shows him around a little more: behind the foyer, is a wide corridor, carpeted with faded blue tiles. A single, fluorescent tube flickers ever so slightly. The walls have been painted with more bright scenery – big-eyed cats, cloudy sheep, a yellow disc sun with wavy yellow rays, high green grass. A large metal sliding door stands on each side of the corridor; the corridor ends with a flight of stairs which rise to a mezzanine and double back.
Diane knocks on one of the doors, very gently. The noise nonetheless reverberating across the unit. Safe to come in? she says. Simon hears nothing, jumps as Diane suddenly heaves back the door.
The spacious, high-ceilinged, near-windowless room has very little visible floor, there being maybe a dozen mattresses, covered with disarrayed bedding, interspersed with bags, portable clothes racks, personal effects.
Two girls are sitting in the room; one, a blonde, huddles over a laptop, playing what looks like an episode of House. The other, all pink hair and piercings, sits on the other side of the room, her back against the facing wall, reading a copy of Northanger Abbey; she looks up, gives a little wave, returns to her book. The other turns her head, distractedly acknowledges Diane and Simon with a movement of her chin, and goes back to Gregory House.
Footnote: That's Ana with the Austen.
One of the things everyone has to do before you begin the game is to decide on a starting setting. Everyone says one thing about it, and you write these things down.
Ryan said it's called the Con Club. Like a Welsh Conservative Club.
Ana said it used to be a Conservative Club, but is actually now a factory unit.
Simon said a load of people, young men and women live there. And that it has dormitories for boys and girls.
Sarah said the number of rooms it has changes depending on what's happening and what the people inside want. Or need.
Everyone looked at Sarah when she said this. But no one argued. You put aside a big pool of points for the scene, for when it's supporting cast against players, the same as all the players' Resources put together.
Across the hall, in the boys’ room – much the same as the girls’ room, but more untidy, smelling slightly of sweat and deodorant. – no one is present. – So, Simon says, is there a place for me here? I mean, it wouldn’t be for a long time or anything. I have a flat lined up in a month, three weeks maybe.
– Yeah, there’s a place.
She takes a step forward. Her hand brushes against his.
– There’s no rules about how long you have to stay. Long as you can chip in with the rent, you can stay, leave when you want. You could move in today, no worries.
She leads him back out to the door. It’ll probably be Friday, I think, he says. As he goes back out, blinking, into the sunlight, he says,
– Listen. Are you free for a drink tonight?
She turns her head to one side, touches her hair.
– Yeah, she says, and then she says, No, hang on, no. I have to be somewhere. I could do tomorrow.
– I can’t do tomorrow.
– It’ll have to wait until Friday.
– All right. I’ll see you then.
And Simon heads back down to the main road, and Diane stands at the door of the Con Club, and watches him until he is out of sight.
Footnote: Simple Risk here. Ryan's the scene-setter. He's deciding the scene. Simon wants to ask Diane out. He is doing it for selfish reasons. He risks two points of “Me” – but because he has Diane on his “I love” line, he gets an extra point and because he is desperate, and can say that it's because he has never been kissed, he can claim another extra point. These extra points go straight into his hand. They're called Story points and they only count for the Risk. The scene-setter can't use them. So Ryan Risks three as well, and because Simon's got an extra two, he actually has four, and so comes back with three points to put back into his box, which is more than he started with.
Now here's the thing. If you win, you get to describe the outcome. If you break even or come out with a profit, you get to choose a good outcome; if you win with fewer points than you started with, you have to describe a bad outcome.
OK, stakes done. It becomes Ana's turn to set the scene, so now she is absent.
– The first place we had, says Diane, heaving a box from the car —
– No, I should take that, says Simon –
– Thanks – it was actually this old place up near Merthyr. It was a conservative club. Like a social club. There used to be a lot of them round here. Sort of like a pub. Sort of not.
– Yeah. There was a Con Club down the road from the last place I lived at. Here, stack on another. No, I can take it. No, really.
– It was a really great place to live. Really atmospheric. Like a really nice pub, only more, you know, spacious and stuff. We used to hang out in the lounge bar all the time. No drinks apart from the stuff we bought home. But these big leather fitted seats and lovely old wooden tables. Are you sure you can manage - ?
– I’m fine. I’m fine. So what happened to it?
– They condemned it. Compulsory purchase order or something. We had to move out. It’s under an Asda now.
– Right. I think there’s another bag in the car.
– OK. So. We had to find another place. There were twelve of us at the time. So here we are. But me and Sarah and Ana, we missed the old place. So we all decided that we'd keep the old name. It was what we were about.
– And you’re in hiding?
Diane does that thing where she shrugs and flips her hair out of her eyes at the same time.
Footnote: Simon's wife Diane, the real Diane, used to do that thing with the hair when she when she was younger. She used to do it a lot, and Simon loved it. She hasn't for years.
– We’re in hiding.
They fire up the stove under an overfilled kettle.
– You keep saying that, he says.
– Saying what? she says.
– “We’re in hiding.”
– Oh. Yeah. It’s just something I say. You know?
He shakes his head. She plays with her fringe, looks at the kettle.
– Well, it’s like, the first time I said it, I was joking.
The kettle rattles precariously before bouncing itself almost off the stove. Simon has to lunge to stop the kettle toppling, pours some of the water into the sink. Crisis averted. He dries his hands on a teatowel.
– And you’re not joking now? About being in hiding?
– Well. It sort of came true. We are. In hiding. Pretty much all of the people who live here. Except now we’ve got you. So it sort of isn’t really true any more.
That first night, Simon doesn’t actually see any of the other boys. They’re not there when he turns in and while there are signs of them having slept in their beds and shifted stuff around, none of them are present when he gets up.
He’s getting ready to go out, and runs into Diane in the foyer. She’s off to the hospital – her shift starts soon, and the hospital is sort of on Simon’s way. They cut across the grass, and Diane asks Simon how he’s doing, and how he slept, and if he’s met the other boys, and is he doing OK? and Simon makes all the right noises without saying much, and lets Diane talk to him, before she says goodbye and heads up to the ward.
He forgets about her until the evening. In the kitchen, a tall, whipcord-thin boy with a fringe that falls into his eyes is stirring bolognese.
Footnote: And here's Ryan.
They introduce each other, chat about university – Ryan's doing an MA in Geography. They drink tea. The conversation lapses.
– So what’s with Diane? Simon says.
– How do you mean?
Ryan stops stirring the bolognese, leans against the worktop.
– I don’t know.
Simon pushes his glasses up his nose.
– Forget I said anything.
– No, says Ryan, come on, man. You can’t leave it like that. Ryan pushes his sleeves up, returns to the saucepan.
– I shouldn’t have said anything. Honestly.
– You want to know if she likes you, right? says Ryan, without looking up.
– Yeah, says Simon.
– She likes you.
Saturday: Ben's laptop cinema is tonight showing the Star Wars trilogy marathon. The original one (The only one, says Steve the Goth).
The lights go out, the candles get lit, about a dozen tubes of Pringles and six bottles of cheap red appear and all of the boys and most of the girls slump around on the mattresses strewn around, mesmerised by a 17-inch screen flashing with lightsabres and starships.
Diane, a little tipsy, creeps up under Simon’s arm and falls asleep, cuddled up close to him. Simon lets his arm rest on his shoulder. He strokes her hair.
Footnote: Ryan, Sarah and Ana are all a bit awkward about these scene transitions. No one quite knows how to move onto the next day. They laugh awkwardly about it.
Simon, however, says that it feels right, like a love affair that moves too fast.
Sunday, Diane and Simon share coffee and comedy hangovers in the kitchen.
– So, she says to him, did something happen last night?
– I don’t know. Maybe.
– Do you want it to?
They look at each other for a long time.
So it’s about half-past ten Sunday night now. Again, the rest of the boys are out somewhere. Jon, Ryan and Ben probably won’t be back until late. Steve the Goth, he of the eyeliner and improbable fishnet T-shirt, is likely out preying on the blood of the innocent or something. Either that, or getting stoned with his mates down in Uplands. No one has seen Paul for days.
Simon lies alone in the dark.
– She’s not bad, he says out loud to himself. Not what you were looking for, exactly. But then, what you were looking for?
– She has a nice smile, he says.
– But she’s a little overweight, he says.
– You shallow bastard, he says.
– She likes you. She likes you, and how long has it been since a girl liked you? he says.
He settles back onto his bedroll, lies on his back, clasps his hands behind his head, closes his eyes.
Footnote: As Simon plays through this dialogue, everyone else in the room shows visible discomfort.
In the girls’ room across the hall, someone’s playing music. Simon doesn’t recognise it – left-field, guitar-based, male vocalist, probably American, 1990s. Sounds a bit like REM, when they were good. It’s not quite loud enough for him to make out any of the words.
– So do you? he says.
– I mean, she’s yours if you want her, he says.
– But I don’t. Not really, he says.
– But you could make yourself want her, he says.
– You like her. That’s enough, man. That’s all it needs, he says.
– But what if it isn’t?
He turns onto his side, opens his eyes, contemplates the dark, the line of light beneath the sliding door.
– What the hell. What could it hurt? Why not?
From across the hall, the chorus of one of the songs coalesces, over a ringing guitar line:
– Here we are. Down with the Minutemen. Now you have what you came for. Now you have what you came for.
Simon laughs, once. Diane left his bed only about half an hour ago.
Footnote: And now comes the Risk and again it's Simon and no one seems to mind. Does he love Diane? Can he return her affections honestly? But of course he has misunderstood my game. I never intended for human feelings to be a thing covered by rules and mechanics. You can't make a game like that. It doesn't work. People don't work like that. He can only fail.And as if she was never away, she is back, in the dark, invisible, taking a wild zest in going down on him, knowing full well one of the other boys could come back any minute. He yelps when he's done like some tortured animal.
And then Diane wipes her face and she lies against him, under his arm, and she doodles her fingernail across his chest.
– What do you think about? she says.
– When we have sex, she says. What’s going through your mind? You don’t look straight at me. It’s like you’re looking past me.
– I’m concentrating, he says. On you. On your hair. I like the smell of your hair. And your skin. You have beautiful skin.
He runs his hand through her hair.
She shrugs closer to him, squeezes him, says, Is that true?
– Yeah, he says, looking up at the ceiling.