Mike was the first to arrive. Bursting with bonhomie, he strode into the hallway brandishing a clinking carrier bag, plonked himself down at the kitchen table and waved a bottle of Budweiser under my nose. It was 9.30am. "Rob, Rob," he said, beaming. "It's going to be a brilliant weekend. No women." Yes, no women, but I couldn't quite forget the fact that women had become Mike's life-blood. He adored them and pawed them, especially if they were attached to his friends. Still, perhaps this time he meant it.
Before I'd had a chance to answer he was in the living room, seeking out his first target of the day with the speed and accuracy of a cruise missile - my record collection. I followed in his wake, but it was too late to prevent detonation. "Aw sheeet, this Otis Redding album - it's broken!" "What do you mean, broken? It wasn't last night." "Yeh, trod on it. Snapped in two. Sorry, Rob, but it was rubbish anyway."
The doorbell rang again. "Ben, hi,'' I said. "It's good to see you. Come in." In the living-room a record player needle was scratching a new path across vinyl. "Um, Mike's here," I mumbled. Ben had guessed, and was glaring. "That dysfunctional nerd tried to get off with ..." "Steve's coming too," I interjected. Already, the weekend was spiralling into gloom.
Once, long ago, the four of us had been pals. We liked the same music, drank in the same dives, and shared a common goal: to do absolutely nothing of worth and enjoy doing it. We bonded before bonding was born and trusted nothing so little as women, who were objects to be desired but not to share a life with. They were problems. Then, five or so years ago, things changed. We all found ourselves attached, in one way or another, to problems. We had jobs, some of us careers, and gradually drifted apart.
Steve arrived next. "Um, Mike and Ben are here," I confessed. "Oh shit! I thought you'd grown out of them. Wasn't the idea to have a laugh, like we used to?" It was, but I was beginning to feel more like an embattled UN peace negotiator than accommodating host.
After an hour of shuttle diplomacy I was exhausted. It wasn't even noon and the lines of battle had been drawn up. Ben had set up camp in the kitchen, where he had miraculously remembered he had some reading to catch up on. Having suddenly discovered the delights of stereophonic headphones, Steve was numb to the outside world, listening to From Our Own Correspondent. Mike was in the bathroom dissecting the coffee machine.
Lunchtime loomed with all the promise of an appointment with the hangman's noose. Instead of relaxing amid ribaldry and banter, I found myself scuttling hopelessly between strangers, like a medieval priest administering last rites in a plague house. Bacon sandwiches brought us together in one room.
"So, Mike, still a doctor?"
"Generally speaking, most doctors stay doctors, Steve."
"How's the law, Ben?"
"Less boring than treating colds, Mike."
"Rob, I guess you're still working for newspapers. Nothing more challenging cropped up yet?"
It was then that a familiar female voice began to echo at the back of my mind: "Rob, why are you having that lot over again? You know they drive you mad." Oh God, she was right. I'd been through this nightmare last year, but here I was again, same house, same people, same stress. The male-bonding myth had been so potent it eradicated all memory of last year's debacle - and the ones before, whose bones were beginning to poke up from their shallow graves.
But why are men so ready to believe their own good-time propaganda? We seem to have a genetic propensity for falling into traps we baited ourselves. By evening I'd given up. My guests were queuing in silence to telephone the women in their lives - you know, the ones they were going to do without. Just before midnight, I too capitulated. "Oh dear - I did warn you," she said. I asked what she'd been doing that evening. "Met up with some old friends. Went for dinner. Yeh, it was good, really nice ... apart from when that silly cow said ..."Reuse content