Sometimes you find yourself in a position where you suddenly stop, take a step backwards, look around with a bemused expression and think, I'm not entirely sure I know how I got here, I know it's not good, and I'm uncertain what I should do next. This happens to me a lot.
The other day, for no apparent reason whatsoever, I remembered one such situation that occurred to me and immediately knew I should preserve it for posterity. This is that story.
About four years ago, I was something of an itinerant wanderer, moving from flat to flat, house to house, never really settling down anywhere in particular. At this time, I'd just moved in to my good friend Ben's house, based in Tintern Avenue, Westcliff. I was renting the front bedroom and quite enjoying the cosmopolitan feel of the area. By 'cosmopolitan' I mean that the chavs and ne'er-do-well's were from an impressive array of countries and continents, thus introducing a real 'United Colours of Benetton' type vibe, except with terrifying violence and snarling dogs.
5 minutes walk away was, and indeed still is, a pub called 'The Trading Room', which is one of those public houses that sprang to life from the empty shell of a closed-down bank. The decor was pleasing to the eye, the clientele were a varied selection of office workers, builders and 'miscellaneous', and the prices were a little on the high side, tending to drive away the lager-swilling riff-raff whose idea of culture is bare-knuckle boxing with their mother.
One Saturday night, kicking around the house on my own, I pooled my limited resources and decided to treat myself to a few pints. After all, this is what normal people do isn't it?
Unfortunately, my night was to be far from normal.
Standing at the bar, I sipped my bitter and looked around at the good-natured, straight-toothed people sipping wine, exchanging pleasantries and generally having a rather jolly, oik-free evening. At one point, I even treated myself to a beatific smile which, frankly, didn't sit particularly comfortably on my face but I thought I'd give it a go.
A chap in his early fifties was standing close by and engaged me in conversation. We drank a couple of beers together, chatting about this and that for a while and it was all very pleasant.
I became aware that he wasn't alone as he had a girlfriend who was lounging around in the corner downing large vodkas like they were going out of fashion and silently perusing the other patrons of the pub. She seemed nice enough, but didn't say very much.
For the purposes of this reminiscence, I shall call the man Bernard and the woman Tiffany. I have no idea of their real names as that particular detail has long since been lost to my memory.
Eventually, the bell rang for last orders and we managed to sneak another drink. As the other patrons started to file out, my new friend Bernard turned to me and said, "We're going to get something to eat and then have a couple of drinks at home. Come and join us!"
Now, normally, I might have stood back and thought, Right, I've only just met this guy, I don't really know who he is, so it's probably best not to head back to his house where I might be raped or murdered. Unfortunately , I'd had several drinks and was now in 'the zone'.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, being in 'the zone' means that the alcohol you've already guzzled is racing around your system at a rate of knots and giving you a happy, 'all is right with the world' buzz. It feels good, it makes you believe yourself to be cleverer and wittier than you actually are, and it demands constant topping-up. The filter in your head which says "OK chief, time to call it a night" is set to the 'off' position and all you crave is additional alcohol, consequences be damned.
The off licence was closed and there was no booze indoors, so this was my only opportunity for a cheeky snifter. Casting caution to the wind, I nodded at Bernard and said, "Yeah, that'd be good. Cheers."
We filed out of the pub, me, Bernard and Tiffany, and visited a Chinese takeaway down the road. Having no money left, I chose the 'standing outside smoking' option while they organised their food. A few minutes later, we were heading off to his flat which was a ten minute walk away.
When we arrived, just after midnight, we entered the flat and I could see that it was a pleasant enough place, a bit rough around the edges, but habitable and not at all grimy. Good, I thought, these seem like decent people.
My host directed me towards the living room which housed the usual fixtures and fittings with the addition of a small dining room table and a few chairs. Pointing me towards a chair he said, "Right, drink?"
"Fantastic, yes. What have you got?"
"Tea or coffee?"
I paused. Tea or coffee hadn't been on the bill of fayre floating enticingly around in my head. I'd envisaged whisky or vodka. Perhaps a good quality brandy or a fine vintage port. A glass of champagne, perhaps, or a gin and tonic. Casting my eyes quickly around the living room, I could see no bottles of delicious booze so resigned myself to the fact that Bernard had dragged me here pretty much on false pretences and all I was going to get was a decidedly uninspiring non-alcoholic beverage.
"Coffee please, thanks," I grumbled.
"How do you take it?" Bernard asked.
"Black, two sugars."
This, it transpired, was a mistake, but I was not to discover this until a little later.
Bernard scurried off to the kitchen where Tiffany had disappeared some moments earlier and I heard the recognisable sounds of water being poured, a kettle being flicked on and spoons pinging against mugs. In addition, they were munching their special fried rice in the kitchen while I sat there silently in the living room.
After a couple of minutes, Bernard brought my coffee out and placed it, steaming mightily, onto the table in front of me. I looked up at him and could see that numerous grains of rice had collected at the corners of his mouth as he chewed his takeaway.
He smiled at me conspiratorially and said, "Want to see something good?"
I nodded dumbly and tried to smile, the first stirrings of "I have a bad feeling about this" jerking into life at the back of my brain.
Bernard wandered over to a cupboard, opened it and fumbled about for a few seconds. Then, closing the cupboard, he turned to me and I could see he was holding what appeared to be a metal bar in his hands.
"Extendable baton," he grinned, flicking his wrist and causing the metal bar to extend to its full length. He smiled, swishing it about, and said, "A few thumps in the head with that and you wouldn't be getting up again."
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't slightly frightened. I was, in a matter of seconds, stone-cold sober. Soon, I thought, I might be stone-cold dead.
He continued to stand there, brandishing the baton, swiping it through the air and slamming it into the palm of his hand. Bizarrely, my eyes were still focused on the rice at the edge of his lips. I think my rationale was: I can't possibly be beaten to death with an extendable baton by a man who has part of a Chinese meal on his face. That wouldn't be proper so it can't happen.
It turned out that my logic was absolutely correct as Bernard proceeded to hand the baton to me, instructing me to "have a go".
I weighed it in my hands and, politely, nodded my head appreciably at its impressive weight. He urged me to swing it about so I feebly swished it back and forth, nodding my head and complementing him on his choice of weapon.
He smirked and took the baton from me, saying "Here, I'll show you something else", before going to his cupboard once again.
Pausing only briefly to show me his cricket bat that "I normally keep downstairs by the door", he proceeded to produce a handgun and wave it in my general direction. Yes, you read that right - he was holding a handgun.
Cradling it lovingly, he then told me about what type it was, the ammunition it took and its destructive power. Sadly, these details are forever lost in the mists of time as I was, by now, utterly terrified. Fortunately, as he explained, he kept the bullets in the attic so at least the thing wasn't loaded. Or so I assumed as the alternative didn't really bear thinking about.
After a few moments, he returned the handgun to his cupboard of deadly weaponry and returned to the kitchen to polish off the rest of his rice.
Left alone, I looked around nervously wondering how best I could make my escape. This man, a complete stranger, had invited me into his home and waved a selection of illegal weapons at me. Indeed, he'd actually pointed a gun at my face. This was not, to the best of my knowledge, normal behaviour. I had no choice but to leave. This was way outside my comfort zone.
Unfortunately, what was also outside my comfort zone was the fact that to escape immediately would mean I'd be leaving a full cup of coffee on the table which was nothing short of rude. Yes, yet again, my pathetically English sense of decorum had kicked in and I couldn't possibly leave without drinking the coffee first. The thought of sneaking out leaving a fresh beverage un-sipped mortified me, if for no other reason than Bernard might pursue me down the road with a sawn-off shotgun, outraged at my casual refusal of his courteous gesture.
This, unfortunately, was where my decision not to have milk in my coffee had backfired. The cup of liquid in front of me was hotter than the surface of the sun and completely undrinkable without inflicting serious oral burns on myself. I sat in the living room, frantically blowing on it in a bid to reduce its temperature.
After another few moments, Bernard returned, chewing more food, and said "I'll just put the TV on", which I thought was very nice of him as it would give me something to look at while I weighed up whether I was going to make a bolt for the door or just leap out of the window and hope for the best.
The TV flickered into life and he started sorting through some video tapes in a pile on the floor. He picked one up and inserted it, grabbing the remote control and pressing the play button.
Immediately, the screen filled with images of hardcore pornography.
Bernard turned, winked lasciviously at me, and returned to the kitchen.
Now, on occasion I've had friends round on a social basis. We listen to music or sometimes watch the TV. Occasionally, I'll put a DVD on of the latest Hollywood blockbuster so we can guffaw at the plot holes and feel superior. We've even sat and played games on the xbox 360. What I've never done, however, is decide that what would really set the mood for the evening would be to put on a video of two men vigorously violating a woman in a nurse's outfit. Maybe I'm old-fashioned and out of touch with modern behaviour and for that I can only apologise.
I was starting to feel uneasy, which was manifesting itself as anger, a classic defence mechanism. In this confusing scenario of guns, porn and extendable batons, I needed a scapegoat, something on which I could blame this whole ordeal; an item, person or concept that I could jab my finger at and bellow, "J'accuse! This is all your fault! What the hell were you thinking?"
In the depths of my bewilderment, the only possible thing I could get angry at was the cup of coffee. This steaming mug of devil's brew was the only thing preventing me from making my polite, socially-acceptable escape. You instant bastard, I thought, directing my fury towards the coffee. You irritating receptacle of boiling, pitch-black doom. When I get home - IF I get home - I'm going to find a jar of Mellow Birds and smash it to pieces with a rolling pin.
Suddenly, Tiffany entered the room, walked towards the sofa and laid down on it, eyes glued to the pornography on the TV. We sat there in silence, save for the sound of slapping thighs and animalistic grunts coming from the porn video.
Then Bernard walked in, crossed the room, knelt down by his reclining girlfriend, leaned over her, and started to kiss her passionately whilst jamming his hand between her legs in an alarmingly non-erotic fashion, all the while looking directly at me.
Finally, the pieces dropped into place. I had been invited back here to engage in a threesome with a man in his fifties and a tired, drunk blonde woman. They'd decided to indulge in some sort of sordid, sex festival and I was the guest of honour.
It was an horrific tableau. Me, mug in hand, lips pursed at the rim, puffing air over the simmering liquid, Bernard, tongue bulging grotesquely out of his mouth and into Tiffany's, his hand kneading at the crotch of her jeans, eyes locked on mine.
I started to gulp the coffee as fast as I could. My mouth burned, my throat constricted, but I was going to drink that damn coffee and get the hell out of there. I whimpered, took a gulp, gasped, drew cool air into my burning mouth, then took another gulp. It was not dissimilar to some sort of endurance test that you'd see on a Japanese game show performed by a businessman in an ill-fitting leotard while cackling buffoons in fancy dress point at him and shout.
I can only imagine that this is what it must feel like to drink lava, I thought as I continued to swallow scalding mouthfuls of Nescafe. In retrospect, I do wonder if it was Gold Blend as that would have put an interesting slant on the 'will they, won't they' adverts starring Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan. Yes, they will, but only in front of a startled onlooker after pointing a gun at him.
Ironically, just as I'd swallowed the last mouthful of coffee and banged the mug on the table triumphantly, Tiffany, who had possibly been press-ganged into the whole sorry business by the perverted Bernard, decided that she didn't want to do this and pushed him away, before tottering to her feet, picking up her shoes and walking out. He dashed after her, trying to talk her back into the room but, within a few seconds, I heard the sound of the front door slamming shut and his dejected footsteps slowly climbing the stairs.
He shuffled into the room, switched off the porn and turned to me. We regarded each other silently, him with unmistakable disappointment, me with pleading terror.
Eventually, Bernard spoke. "I don't think she's feeling very well. I'm going to bed. Thanks for coming over."
And with that, I leaped from the dining room table, grabbed my coat and darted towards the door. Astonishingly, I thanked Bernard not only for his hospitality, but for the coffee too.
I stepped outside into the cold night air, sucking it gratefully into my raw, stinging mouth and walked home, furtively casting my eyes over my shoulder every few steps just in case Bernard was following me with a scimitar tucked into his belt.
Reaching Ben's house, I let myself in and walked straight upstairs to my room, flinging my clothes off and climbing wearily under the sheets, already wondering if I'd actually experienced what had just happened. I fell into a troubled sleep.
It has often been said to me, "It could only happen to you, Dan." I must regrettably agree.