"Hey," says BestMate, "it's Friday, we should go to the pub." I turn him down.
I used to say yes on a Friday night when asked, or any evening of the week, more often than not. Pubs can be mighty fine places with the right atmosphere and company, plus the alcoholic beverages they serve slip down a treat too. But five times this year, on each of the five Fridays I've been asked, I've turned that invite to the pub down. Because it's always the same bloody one.
I've been to many excellent pubs this year. Ancient hostelries on the estuarine Thames, sipping ale on the rear wooden decking. Suit-packed saloons in the heart of Covent Garden, stood out front beside the lump of modern art. Chichi gastropubs in the backstreets of Kensington, their decor an expensive imitation of the run-down boozer the place used to be. Riverside taverns where sunburnt geezers arrive by motorboat and geese shelter from the sun beneath the lock gates. Oh yes, I don't mind a good pub. But I've gone off BestMate's favourite somewhat.
His preferred pub is always busy. This can be a good thing, because it means we're more likely to bump into someone we might know. BestMate knows everyone, or so it seems, so for him the more people in a particular location the more random acquaintances he gets to talk to. And I don't mind that, it's good to meet new people, even if at the end of the night you'd be pleased never to have to meet some of them again. But busy can also be bad, and Friday nights doubly so.
The bar is always, always packed. It doesn't matter how early we turn up, there's always a crowd elbow-deep attempting to buy a round for half a dozen friends. I like to at least make eye contact with the bar staff when I approach, but in this pub I can only perch awkwardly at the back of the throng and attempt to get someone's attention. Buying a round is always stressful, not least because I'm rubbish at pushing forward, or rather others are considerably better. Sometimes I can stand waiting for five minutes or more without beer or even acknowledgement, which makes me feel woefully insignificant. And I'm not even after anything complicated, I only want a bottle.
But this particular pub has stopped selling my favourite bottle. I should be grateful - Beck's isn't exactly the highpoint of global lager output, so its absence should nudge me into buying something better. But I take an Aspergers approach to alcohol, I like familiarity of experience. A tried and tested regime keeps me on my feet for longer, especially in a social situation when other people are buying for me, but that's not possible here. So instead I end up drinking lagers I like less, or liquids that incapacitate me quicker, and my social night out inevitably suffers.
Then there's the area set aside for drinking, or lack of it. Time was that everyone stayed inside the pub, summer or winter, in a fog of swirling smoke. Then the pavement space opened up, and those of us who preferred freedom from nicotine stepped outside and enjoyed the air. It wasn't long before legislation banished the smokers too, and soon the pavement was as packed as the interior. This in turn forced the landlord to install barriers to stop punters spilling into the road, or rather to avoid falling foul of the council's licensing requirements. All of which has made the Friday night pub experience more like a cattle market than a street party, and I guess I've fallen out of love.
I should be less intolerant of imperfection and make an effort to attend, rather than always opting out like a reclusive wuss. Equally there will come a Friday when BestMate heads elsewhere, to some alternative drinking establishment that isn't an over-desirable hub "where everyone goes". My diary is poised to accept his invite, when it comes, indeed my Saturday evening contains just such an opportunity. But on Friday night while the world went out and did something more exciting, I merely sat at home with a cup of tea and wrote about my social opt-out. It may be a far cheaper option than frequenting a London pub, but it's not, I fear, the best way to be spending one's life.