“CHEERS!” The slightly drunken cry came from the four customers at the table in the back corner, and not for the first time that night.
The bar, out of the centre of town and tucked away down some back streets, was never a favourite of University students even during term-time, and was mostly empty during a weeknight in the summer break.
The decor had gone through an upgrade since the last time these friends had been there. The dark oak had been treated with a lighter woodstain, and the tacky gold leaf had been replaced with a more sedate copper to match.
“This place changed about as much as we all did,” the fair-skinned woman in the blue summer dress said as she took a gulp of her beer.
“Pretty sure you win on the changes, uh…” Bradley, a balding, bearded, sallow-faced man in khakis and a burgundy shirt paused for a second, ensuring he got the next word right, “Jess.”
“Yeah,” echoed Natasha, her dark-skin and frilly white blouse contrasting starkly, making her stand out from the group, “Like, we all just got older, you did a whole gender flip thing. You look fuckin awesome, by the way.”
“Agreed,” the fourth voice slurred slightly, Millie leaning forward until the candle on the table was dangerously close to burning her tawny flesh, “Though it does mean you fucked up the gender balance here,” she guffawed.
The other three fake-glared at her for a moment before joining in.
University had been a time of many friends, but none closer than these four, currently engaging in an unofficial 20 year reunion.
Millie, always the most social, had kept track of them all long after the twists and turns of life had taken them away from each other, and the invitation to meet back up for a weekend had proved irresistible. Millie had taken on the task of quick updates about everyone’s lives – mostly to ensure Jess was comfortable – and they had all arrived this afternoon, checked into the same Travelodge, and met at their old bar for food and drinks.
As this night grew late, they moved from sharing current news and recent history, to past deeds and misadventures. One night, amidst the pranks and drunken concerts, stood out in all of their minds.
They had driven out to the woods at the edge of town for an overnight camping and drinking session. Taking turns to heft the two cooler boxes full of food and alcohol, each of them carrying camping gear on their backs, they found the clearing they were looking for and set up for the night. Two tents, enough wood to keep a fire lit for the night, and blankets laid out across the ground, covering the whole area, which had been carefully cleared of stones.
All prepared, the four of them lay or sat back with a drink.
Jess, leaning against the split trunk of a hornbeam that stretched out across the clearing, branches connecting with others to give shade from the summer sun, looked around at her friends.
“Cheers, everyone,” she raised her bottle.
They echoed back and drank, before settling to their own thoughts for a while.
When the clearing began to grow dim, Bradley and Natasha got the fire crackling and Natasha delved into one of the coolers to produce four large, unlabelled, glass bottles.
“Alright folks this is where the party begins. This right here is my Aunt Elsa’s homemade sloe gin. She makes it from scratch, right down to picking the berries from her own blackthorns.
The others gathered around and accepted plastic cups of the gin, and the drinking began in earnest.
That night all four of them found themselves drunker than they’d ever been and, over last orders in the bar, they tried to remember the ridiculous conversations they had engaged in. Horny giraffes, the ridiculousness of roundabouts, their real opinions of some of their professors, how planes shouldn’t be able to fly, and lots about what their plans were for the rest of their lives.
Jess giggled softly, “That night was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever had another one like it.”
“Never had a bloody hangover like it either,” Bradley grumbled, “Remember the next day?”
“It was, like, 4pm by the time we could get our asses up to hike back out and drive again!” Millie laughed, “Even then I’m not sure we were properly sober!”
“God, I didn’t drink alcohol for a solid week after that,” Natasha grinned.
“I still can’t drink gin,” Jess shook her head.
Natasha laughed loudly, finishing off her drink, “I accept no responsibility and would do it all again!”
“Oh, in a heartbeat,” Millie agreed.
The bar manager appeared beside them, “Hi folks. You’re welcome back tomorrow, but I gotta close up for tonight.”
“Of course, thank you,” Bradley stood, followed quickly by the others. “Off to bed for me, anyone else?”
The group chorused agreement and they set off at a leisurely pace back to town, and their beds, chattering easily amongst themselves as the smell of the woods permeated the clear, night air around them.
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