Brendan asks if he can light up. I say, I say, I say: "You can burst into flames for all I care." Which is a ritual response, a running gag, usually. For this is the asshole smoking-room, where we beat our retreats when the going gets tough, and Brendan still peddles the routine question, a nervous tic, only tonight my reply comes on strong and comes out wrong. As if I mean it. As if I would consign this hapless sinner to the fire.

Everyone looks up, looks over. Looks dumb. The regulars, George, Jim, Doug, Jeremy, flipping through year-old glossies, fast-forwarding through graciously donated videos, inhaling, exhaling on the demon weed, fogged in and forcing themselves to dwell on other things, and the new boy, Rodney, dazed and confused, but putting what will be the first of many brave faces on it. I know: Tony, Tom, Sean, Robin, Brian. The Miss Parade. Been there. Done (in by) that.

Brendan trembles. Brendan would. "Sorry. That wasn't supposed to sound the way it did." Brendan makes what ought to be a smile, only it's not. It's both spasm and carving, some strange, indented long-forgotten image fearless explorers found at the bottom of the sea and salvaged for civilisation. Brendan is polite: "You don't need to apologise. It's Derek, isn't it? How is Derek?"

And I want to hit him. I want to hit him so bad. I want to hurl him a million emotions beyond trembling.

Instead, I joke: "Still dying. His boyfriend still hasn't called. His family refuse to visit. It might scare the children. They tell people it's cancer. And Paul? Paul fine?"

Which comes out exactly the way I intend, although Brendan doesn't get it. He tells me how Paul is: nearly blind, lungs congested, bowels blasted. Brendan, dear, dear, Brendan remains upbeat, apparently unaware that the light at the end of the tunnel is the oncoming train.

I nod, force parody auto-pilot noises from a tight mouth, right on the terrible verge of muttering, "So, he's better, then?", just to see what hurt I could inflict, if I choose.

Doug knows, though. He's disgusted, possibly: "Does anyone mind if I play some music?" "Sure," George answers. Jim doesn't answer. Fixated on Seven, he stops and rewinds to the bit where Brad Pitt's wife and the black detective sit in a rainy-day diner and talk about what living for the city can do to the human soul. The weakest part of the picture. Doug waves a CD: "Any objections to music, John?" "If it's the Nolans, I have objections. You may even hear from my legal representatives." I was going to say solicitors, then decided legal representatives was prissier, more provocative.

I'm ignored. The silver circle sings: Sunscreem's, "Perfect Motion". The Boy's Own mix, of course. Is there another? Derek and I once moved to this. Christ, the unearned euphoria of it! Those big, rolling, ominous opening bars - something's coming, something good - and that obsessive/compulsive chorus: we got - we got - we got - we got.

Doug says: "John, what's wrong?" He's tactfully pruned two words: "John, what's wrong with you?"

Here's what I really want to reply: "Been to any good safe sex parties recently, and how's the Heath? Cruise it, use it. Spill: does the beloved know you're already dating in advance of his death? Whatshisname? Explain the adult arrangement, Doug. Let's discuss."

The recorded message: "Nothing's wrong."

Nothing is wrong. Because everything is wrong. Everything. Jeremy is wearing the same shirt, tie and trousers he wore yesterday. And the day before. And the day before. Rushing from work to here, back again. Wrong. George will be evicted next week, he thinks, with no place to take Pat, if he recovers from his latest infection, which is remarkably resistant to the latest battery of medical weapons. Pat's a seething chemical cesspool and George is the anointed pool man, fixing the filters, adjusting the dosages, paddling in the pain. Wrong. Rodney, I'm sure, has been waiting for the wolf to blow his house down, and now the slavering beast has entered stage left, tearing the hours and minutes into red rags, ripping apart the landscape, until time and once fixed points of certainty - this and this and this - no longer have conventional meaning.

We got - we got - we got - we got.

Rodney's attempted throwaway hits the floor with a heavy thud: "I might go for a walk." I feel bad: "Never mind us regulars." George blunders forth: "I don't think of myself as a regular, OK, John?" I stab, shoot, strangle: "Then try thinking of yourself not as a regular. If you're not a regular, you've no reason to be here, and reason to be here means what? Someone's dead. It means someone's dead." Doug asks again: "What's wrong, John? We're all in this together." No, we're not. I've reached the conclusion that we're all in this alone. And I don't give a shit how self-pitying it sounds any more.

Jim speaks for the first time this cool evening: "Actually, you'll get used to this." Another country heard from. Rodney is relieved. I won't have it: "That's shit. You don't get used to it. That's such a lie. A lie."

A nurse appears at the door: "Mr Lyttle? Derek ..." I head for the corridor, rage giving me a fever, licking at my pale, thin skin. Behind me Jeremy soothes the room: "It's been a hard day." Reality check: it's been a hard life. And for some of us, it's almost done.

We got - we got - we got - we got fucked. Understand? Get it? On a learning curve? Congratulations, I couldn't be more thrilled.