‘Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge, for I am opening the flood-gates myself, against my will.’ 
There is no beginning to any story, and in fact stories always begin in the middle of things (except for the Bible and even then you read the lines ‘In the beginning’ and think ‘yes, but what about before that?’), and just so with my story, there is no beginning so I’ll merely begin at an ‘appropriate’ point and move forwards through events. Occasionally I may have to go back beyond the so-called beginning, but that’s the nature of life or the telling of it at least...
‘My new life has not started entirely as I meant it to,’ I hear myself think under the pounding headthump of hangover. I feel lost and captured in my twisted sheets, sweaty and cool. Argh, the same twisted mess of bed linen, the same sun making jagged cuts through the curtains and splitting my head – different city, different land, same pain, same injustice. And I can’t get up with these rhythms in my mind and I can’t stay in bed either, not with this oily black gunk and stabbing slick of magenta, yellow, green, turquoise behind my eyes.
See my room from a bird’s eye view: a single bed forced into the small shoe box, with me, as I said, entangled in its sheets; an open cupboard, bare but for the unpacked rucksack within; the small space of floor that creeps out from under the bed is uncarpeted, lino or something, and my clothes of three days lie upon it. A window is highlighted by the entrance of one or two sunbeams and the door opposite – locked from the inside – bangs slightly in its frame whenever someone somewhere in the building pulls on an interconnected cord. Even from your view up there on the ceiling you’ll notice that I look sorry for myself and perhaps you’ll even read my mind as it asks why me, why me, o lord why me? And perhaps you’ll even think yes lord, why him – if you have an ounce of sympathetic sentiment you will – or perhaps you’ll think well it’s his own fault, he’s just hungover, no sympathy for self-inflicted suffering.
On this, the third morning, I get up and write a letter to my brother. You should read it, it may save me explaining a few things.
My first report from London; three days gone already, just like that, in a blur. Sorry I couldn’t come back last week – it’s strange to miss your birthday for the first time, but it was good to talk to you. I hope you had a good evening without me (if possible!), and in fact I’m sure you did because at least the conversation wouldn’t have been about me and my future – for once.
God, I haven’t even unpacked yet – too much to do. You should see my room: tiny little box-room already strewn with the cotton detritus of three nights out… Seen lots of people from school already – bumped into Roo and Senny last night in Chelsea. They haven’t changed a bit. Actually S is a little different, he’s grown up a bit and he’s far more confident and in fact talks and talks now and loves to be the centre of attention and tells great anecdotal tales. He has been sacked from two jobs though, so something of the old Senny remains.
I went out with Crow the night before – same madness as usual. It’s comforting to know that while I’ve been out of the loop nothing and nobody has changed, not really. The only difference is they all have jobs and most of them wear suits to the pub on weeknights.
Speaking of jobs…today is my first official day of real, on-the-street jobhunting. And also I’ve had a change of heart worth mentioning – it’s been a long time coming actually – I’ve decided that journalism is not the thing for me. I just can’t really stand the Press in this country anymore. I’ve lost all respect for them and therefore can’t aspire to join their ranks. There isn’t a decent newspaper left in the country: even the Times and Telegraph have colour photos of footballers wives taking up half the front page; full-page adverts for Dixons on page 6, and one-dimensional reportage on the inside, with all the writers following a bland house-style – there is no longer any writing of personality or character. And I’d probably have to start on the locals, reporting in somnambulant prose the council’s decision to remove swings and roundabouts from the already bouncy-floored playparks because of ‘safety concerns’ (unable to reveal my disgust at the stupidity of the world).
So I’ve been thinking about publishing, editorial in particular: i.e. helping to create books – a worthy thing, surely. Run that one by Dad, see what he says. I would guess he’ll favour that above journalism, so maybe I’ll get back in his Good (or Not So Bad) books. And then once I’ve made money I can live in a castle and print my own newspaper from there, telling strange tales about the battles I’m fighting with my knights and the fact that certain barons are rebelling and are not to be trusted, nor given succour, nor safe haven, not even a crust of bread, at any dwelling in the Land – on pain of torture and eventual DEATH!
Anyway, enough of that. As for my accommodation, well, I’ll say that it’s clean, it’s safe and it’s dry. That’s what I tell everybody, even myself the first night. It’s like a mantra: ‘It’s Clean, it’s Safe, it’s Dry. It’s Clean, it’s Safe, it’s Dry…’ etc. It’s not all that bad, really. Although there is a funny smell – I’m not quite sure what it is, it’s a smell somewhere in between those old gym mats we had at school and plastic. Or new paint. Slightly biscuity too. I sit here sniffing the air as I write, to try and describe it fully – how silly! My room: a tiny little box bedroom with a window looking out onto the Chelsea football ground (or the hotel in front of it anyway), a little kitchen area and a shower. I share the kitchen and shower with a German girl but she works nights so I never see her. I practically have it to myself.
It’s ten o’clock in the morning so I’d better get going. Best jump in the shower and begin this new life in earnest.
Love to Mum (hope her voice is getting better – wish her a speedy recovery) and to Dad, and of course to mi carina the fat cat. And to sleepy old Santa Maria de la Tristessa.
Stay in touch, hermano mio, and I’ll do likewise.
And that’s all I can manage sanely under this savage headthump so I fold the letter and envelope it, preparing it to reach my poor lonely brother in his isolation as he waits on the old folks and twiddles thumbs till university comes. Oh he’ll be Ok, he knows some people in the village now, including one devilishly pretty little senorita, but he needs to improve his Spanish skills or he’s going nowhere with her or any of them, even if he can tinkle his guitar away in the plaza better than any of them. There’s his challenge for the summer ahead, then, damn, I should have put that in the letter. I write on the back of the envelope P.S. Improve Spanish, for Valeria’s sake → gd summer! ‘Sonly well-meaning older brother advice.
Shower now. Later, clean and only slightly wobbly in the head I leave the apartment block – sorry, Mansions block, to give it its misleading, grander title. The name ‘Washington Mansions’ is moulded above the white doorway in art nouveau-ish lettering, smarter than the crumbling blacky redbrick of the rest of the building – a messy late-Victorian construction that was never meant to last this long.
I ride the bus into town, not knowing really where to go, but feeling somehow that I need to get Out There, in amongst the working people, to at least see them going about their business, to watch them in their offices, to smell the sweat of their efforts, to get a scent of their world, to sniff it, breathe it in and ingest it.
I’ll let you imagine what all that looks like – my bagged eyes straining at metaphorical and actual windows to see beyond the dark glass, my ears pointed and alert to hear the whispers or cries within, a Friday spent in unspecific wonderings around Media London, becoming hungry mid-afternoon and the feet treading heavier and eventually finding my way to a pub where friends will be gathering for the start of the Friday night session…
It’s now been four nights of blur and who knows how much drink and how little sleep, how little food. I feel sick to my stomach, I feel a brittleness in my bones, I feel a torpor in my brain and a creepiness on my ill-fitting skin. My mouth is bitter and vile and my throat keeps making these painful coughs and I’m sure I taste blood somewhere back there. But you can tell all this just by looking at me, once again twisted up like an idiot in bedsheets, from your position looking down on my room. It’s Saturday and there’s something very bleak in my mind as I wake up and realise that the week has gone by wastefully and predictably. I roll around in the sheets and try to go back to sleep but the sunlight is malicious and bragging – bragging that it has been let out again to play in this world it loves so much, so unapologetically – and it simply won’t let me sleep off this approaching hangover, I can feel it building…
And with the hangover it only gets bleaker…ah – the hangover! – where all the best self-analysis happens, as, shameful, you look at yourself as you really are…gone the projections, the delusions…naked you are, in front of yourself. And it can be pretty brutal at times…
…into the mirror I stare…I see only eyes inside a shell – it doesn’t seem to be me, this shell, those eyes; in the lifeless snot-green there is no hint of the thoughts that twist through the head. The longer I stare the more convinced I am that the reflection is not of me; the more convinced I am that there is no me, that I do not exist – I can’t possibly exist! That being bares no relation to anything I feel inside me. Argh, what is this shell I lug around? Those snot-green eyes I stare through…?
At noon I walk through a flowing river of blue – Chelsea fans arriving for a match flood the street, all kitted up depressingly in the team's latest shirt, £50 a go, ‘fools,’ I think, but then, ‘who are you to criticise? Whatever makes them happy…’
They all stream one way, tidally sucked in towards the stadium – their source – and I alone battle against the current, in my ripped traveller shorts and faded t-shirt, my idly flopping sandals, as they seep into pubs, momentarily distracted from their inland flow. I turn into the nearby cemetery to escape and walk amongst the quiet graves and crooked headstones, but here too the floodwaters flow, the slimy royal blue like sickening fake water slipping in amongst the cracking pathways, short-cutting through the cemetery from the Brompton Road.
I sit with my face in the Sun and close my eyes, but the orange is so golden that it turns to green, or at least is splattered with green splodges that throb and ache my head. Instead I open my eyes and notice the squirrels darting about amongst the gravestonery and tomb-tops, and watch their careless play.
They hop, the squirrels, from the tops of jostling crosses and crooktoothed headstones, into the overwaiting tree boughs, which then jump in answer. So many crosses and headstones and lain-down tombs…so much gone humanity…what lives were lived by the names etched here? And how true, the epitaphs thoughtfully chosen? GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN says one – true perhaps when the stone was put in, but now, I wonder? For who remembers you in 2005, Gertrude Elizabeth Alexander, now that anyone you ever knew is long dead too? And REST IN PEACE say others, as mighty new Stamford Bridge above them looms and the blue shirts pass through on match-day with beercanned hands, and the loudspeaker blares and the crowds bellow as one stadium-organism. Some peace. And what do the war-time crosses and Victorian stones look like in this shadow but coy little memorials of a time when people were interred instead of scattered into the polluted air with all the other soot, of a time when the stones themselves were first shaped, before they sunk or were warped and corrupted by the processes of the world.
And saddest of all, the little isolated headstones which look as if they have been put there by the deceased themselves just before death – like fluffing a pillow before bed one night – and lay down simply and without a fuss to slip into the afterlife, leaving no family or friends behind to mourn them, only a name. So very sad.
But it's not all gloom, not even as I sit here in a cemetery, hungover, looking at the sad stones, morbid thoughts of sad lonely deaths in my brain, no! Because the squirrels still bounce around and chase each other and (presumably) reproduce and so there is life here too, amongst the death. Happy squirrels. Nice to be buried where life goes on, I suppose, so that your little grandchildren can come and feed the squirrels as your children look upon your grave. And as you die you know that the patter of tiny squirrel-life will leap around above you as you lie motionless in the ground…
But then…those squirrels must shit and piss on the ground, on the graves even (for they know not what they do), and the faeces must in time sink down in the earth and mingle in the soil with the rotted flesh…my flesh…your flesh… Oh – I'm not sure I want this in fact, after all…
These squirrels – do they sense that they are in a place of the dead? Can they see ghosts? Woodland creatures must be used to ghosts – are not the forests full of them – so perhaps the spirits of the dead hold no fear for the squirrel of today…their ancestors have overcome that fear for them and passed down a genetic immunity so that squirrels can live and play in forests and cemeteries. Or perhaps there are no ghosts…?
Not true, of course, because today I am ghost myself – pale, vacuous, but somehow not quite as light as air. I don't feel everything I touch, as if my hand goes right through it. And no one sees me as I sit fading in the sunlight, watching them pass towards their match. I pinch myself to make sure I am not a ghost, but this tells me nothing: I feel flesh in my fingers and fingers on my flesh but the flesh feels slack and lifeless and the fingers weak…if ever a ghost pinched himself this is how it would feel anyway. Ah, well, maybe I died last night. Maybe I died and like in one of those films (the names escape me) my soul has been left on earth to complete some unfinished business or assure my passage to heaven with a final selfless deed. No, someone would have told me. Some angel. A black man in a white suit with white gleaming teeth and a white top hat most likely (wings hidden under his immaculate jacket for now, but to be revealed later for effect). So maybe I've just been left here anyway on Earth…maybe Earth is heaven…or hell. I don't know which thought is the more depressing.
Yes, I am hungover. But it is not serious, because the brain and the imagination appear to be working. If only I could switch them off. I'll read perhaps.
I sit numbly reading my book in the sun, occasional breaks with the text as I look up to watch the squirrels shaking trees, taking proffered bread from a little boy or playing It one-on-one. Soon the blue flow of the Chelsea fans dries up, a little later the stadium buzzes as the game gets underway. I lose my earlier numbness. The vanilla sunshine warms my skin. It is sunny but fresh today, like the day after a storm, although yesterday's rain was slow tap-drips rather than the storm bursts of an unloading over-humid sky, but still it cleared the air, and now the sun is light and the air cool. Around me, West Brompton Cemetery: Victorian neo-Classical arcades encircle the centre, small mausolea encase whole families along the main thoroughfare; elsewhere the aged stones protrude at clumsy angles from the ground like bad teeth from gums; some are flat on the grass, face down on their subject, so that only the dead can read their epitaphs.
The arcades, the stones, the growing grass and descending tree-boughs…these are ruins waiting to happen. An ancient burial ground of the future. I leave, terrified, as a roar of triumph or ecstasy goes up from Stamford Bridge, and the loudspeaker announces, "Scorer of the goal for Chelsea, number ten, Joe Cole."
It's a depressingly beautiful day.
It's Saturday and my friend Ben Crow is working in his wine shop just down the road in Fulham, so I set off to go and see him. Fulham Road is calm now that all the blue has been locked inside the stadium. Anticipatory crowd-sounds reach the street and mounted policemen and women clop around in front of the Chelsea Village Hotel, smiling in the sun in their dayglow vests; I smile at them and they nod back and a whiff of the old days I've heard so much about enters my mind, when there was mutual respect between the police and the people. I'm sure those days aren't entirely gone but you only ever hear the bad things don't you? That's the nature of the Press rather than the police though, I guess. We all get a bad deal from the Press, even us jobless nobodies; the Press are out to shape or destroy us all.
Traffic pinches the roads together at Fulham Broadway, as arguing Aussies bustle into the Plug & Letters, sandals flopping as they step over the Friday night puke that momentarily bars their way. It's getting on for four I guess but all that matters to some people is that it's time for a drink. It's Saturday, it's sunny, got money in my pocket and I'm starting to think goddamnit and I need something to shut up this mind of mine – I can see these thoughts etched on their strained-grin faces as they sit on the pavement chairs and sip their first beers of the day, their smiles aimed across the table at friends, their eyes only for the cold glass of beer. Which looks good, incidentally, oh-so-good, with that frosty look on the glass of condensation, the rising freshness of the bubbles, the sun-glinting golden liquid, cool enough to trace down to the pit of the stomach… But where was I? Ah yes, passing through Fulham Broadway's pavement-spewing pubs, over Eel Brook Common, where yet more Aussies play touch rugby with a competitive edge and shirtless moon-glowing Englishmen play keep-it-up against a backdrop of five-a-side footballing Brazilians, brown and serious. Islands of people in between watch Frisbees low-swooping over their heads as they recline with beers and wine…family groups tease their dogs…the tennis courts sing 'plock, fwop, cwoph,' as balls fly…children cry excitedly on the swings…seems as though everyone is out in the park. And just imagine how many times this scene repeats across the greens and commons and parks of London, with infinite variation: black kids playing football, quiet Polish readers, Afghan families lunching and lonely old men walking dogs, little blond boys falling over, South Africans playing cricket and Sudanese stretching long limbs and warming like lizards in the sun…throughout London and its hundreds or thousands of green places the people of the world walk and laze and play.
As I enter the wine shop I see Ben Crow with one of his customers – he places a glass of golden wine in the man's hand and watches him go through the ritual of tasting, saying, "…integrated oak, toasty, creamy, smoother and more subtle than your typical Californian…" He sees me and waves and holds up a finger to say 'one moment.' The man nods, presumably giving his approval and Crow then disappears. God, if he's drinking already this could be the wrong place to be. But then, if I didn't want a drink why would I have come here – come on, it wasn't even subconscious was it? I knew what I was doing when I left my frolicking squirrels to come and see Ben Crow (of all people) in his wine shop (of all places). Yes, it's four o'clock on a Saturday and, like the arguing Aussies and the parents of the lunching families and all those islands under the over-flying Frisbees, I want a drink. And how could anyone resist anyway in this ridiculous London with all its tempting green spaces and pubs and wine shops and people all around that you cannot really stand to look at and talk to unless you have a cold beer slipping past your lungs or a glass of wine in your raised hand? No, none of us are to blame for the temptations we submit to, it's this London, these cities, that are to blame and I really believe that.
The customer leaves with a case of wine slung casually under his arm as if it is only a book – he is a big man and looks American in his weekend clothes of baseball cap and polo shirt – and thanks Crow for his help, Crow replies, "My pleasure. Have a good weekend," winking at me.
When the man has gone I ask "Did you just wink at me?"
"Never thought of you as a winker."
"No. I'm not. I was just…trying it out. The Retail Wink."
"Ok. You'll never have to see it again. Forget the wink. How’re you?"
"That a promise?"
"Yup. Probably. How you doing?"
"That good? Really?"
"No. Not really."
"So! Julian Pens is back in London! You know, I can barely believe it.”
"Indeed. Well. Here I am."
"Back for good."
“Back for good. Well… We’ve been through this. On Wednesday.”
He looks at me a moment.
"Glass a vino?"
We're standing by a large wooden barrel turned on its end, on top are some glasses and a couple of bottles of wine. Crow plucks up a bottle and starts to pour. It's the same golden ambrosial-looking wine I saw the American just drink; it looks fine indeed. The bottle is sweating. His hand shakes as he holds the glass, his pouring hand vibrates a little too…the anticipatory shudders of the day’s first drink. The vibrations become full-on shakes as he pours a second glass for himself.
“Shit, look at that. I’ve got the shakes.”
“Yeah, thanks. Here you go. That’ll cure what ails ya.”
"Do I look ailing?”
“Well, yes, frankly. Aren’t you?”
"What did you get up to last night?"
I tell him about last night – how University friends of mine who work in the City met for after-work drinks at some old-style City pub, smallish, a square circle of a bar, buzzing with Friday suits, many of whom no doubt there since the business lunching hour and already pint-spilling on shirts and ties and loudly laughing with chopping toothy laughs. I got there at four thirty after my wanderings. The suits laughed as if they wanted everyone to hear what a funny group they were, how full of fun and free of cares. I was early so I grabbed a pint and sat in the bar, away from the showy laughter that makes a lone man feel like a loner.
By the time my friends started arriving I’d began a premature descent into my own beery world: a couple of beers down and it’s just me and my book and my noticeably waning attention span and the laughs of the look-at-us group which start to angle in towards me a little more pointedly…but just as I sense they’re about to turn on me, here come Amy Strutt and her boyfriend Kenny moving through the suited group and through the bar to me, kiss-kiss, handshake, smiles and quick catch-up chat, and hot on their tails, great to see, is Elliot Mackie, with his broad African face, black like his suit except without the sharp pinstripes. He looks so smart! – I’ve never seen him suited for work, only for christenings and weddings and such, when his suit is more rumpled or somehow less crisp at least. We shake hands and he shouts warm ‘long-times’ at me and decides he must buy me a drink, proclaims this and strides off to the bar, in a flash is back with pints of beer and cheering me – clinks – and I can see he is pumped with the exhilaration of weekend freedom; his white African smile cannot hide as his eyes gape and he talks quickly about everything he has heard recently involving any mutual acquaintances – as well as some I don’t even know – looking around the bar excitedly all the time as if expecting to see the very devil of which he speaks. Elliot Mackie is a friend from University, a great smiling English-educated African with a microphone-like aura of tight black hair on his head; thick-set, powerful; charming, funny; a great friend of the long drinking days of student life and now of the short mad evenings and weekends of Real World life when all is binge and excited eyes around a bar, searching, searching… His Ugandan parents sent him to school in England to make a gentleman of him, to get him away from trouble and violence and the darkness of Africa, and they succeeded, for he is a fine young gentleman, but he is also a drinker educated in the English school – an upshot they can not have expected. Good old Macks.
And within an hour a crowd of seven of us – the nucleus, almost, of my university crowd – have gathered and now chatter like a flock of geese, gesticulating with our wings, and another hour later, more arrivals, and beer spilling and swilling and by the time the after-work drinkers have dispersed we are gaggling and flocking and now own the place more or less, talking in sub-groups but also talking over the sub-groups, across groups and between groups, so that before long it seems as though everyone is talking to everyone else all at the same time... And here I am yakking with my beer and my suited buddies, like a banker, waving my pint around emphatically. I feel like we have an immunity to drink, or at least immunity to becoming drunk, because we look too respectable to behave drunken, to sink to those depths. It is forbidden.
Not so. Alas.
Just as we should be all shuffling off and wobbling on our various ways a round of tequilas appears, quickly to disappear. Then, by magic, they regenerate. And disappear again. I realise it’s ten o’clock and none of us have eaten…it’s almost too late now though, things have started and even snowballed and soon I’m telling Macks “I’ll pay you back really soon,” as he waves twenty pound notes towards a girl behind a counter and we are in some club, miraculously arrived at…soon shouting across the dancefloor, all of us smiling and dancing in our workday clothes (I have assumed the position of honorary working man by this stage) in the purple-lit black and undeniable music of the nightclub. It’s all such fun…
Crow laughs. "Tequilas, tequila. When will you learn Pens? Sambuca’s the one. No hangovers with the ‘buca. Clean as a whistle. Not like that dirty Mexican shee-utt."
"Rubbish. And you? Do anything?"
"Nah. Just a quiet one – a coupla pints in the Cauldron, glass of wine back home."
"Anyway, what am I drinking here?" I put the wine to my nose and smell as Crow has taught me. "I'm getting…uh, honey, toast, is that the integrated oak?"
His eyebrows raise. "Very good…Yes. Exactly." Almost lost for words. I slurp up the wine, swirl it round my mouth, draw a sharp breath of air over it – again, all as I've been taught – and then swallow. And ooh that's good. That tastes expensive…it tastes like…peaches that have been crushed gently with a golden sledgehammer dipped in vanilla essence, and then dried in the pure spring sunshine. Perhaps.
"…well we've got this party, so I thought I'd drink before I get there and…" Crow is saying when I look up from the wine, as it shivers its golden way down my dark insides, bringing a new light to places where all day there has been none.
"Ah," I say. Crow pauses.
"You like that?" he asks.
"It's awesome," I tell him.
"Good shit, nay? Good shizzle." He fills up his own glass and carries on talking about a party we've got to go to tonight which is on a boat I think, although Crow himself isn't exactly sure. "…or a boat club I can't recall…but it should be great, only the bar isn't free, so we should drink up before going or it's going to get pretty expensive, so let's spend the afternoon getting slowly drunk here, for free, and then head off to this party. Whaddayasay?"
"Sounds good." I let more of the golden wine charm its way into my mouth and slip down my soothed throat. "I think I could probably drink this all afternoon."
"Of course you could, that's Puligny-Montrachet."
"White Burgundy. 35 quid."
"Hmm." If I had that much money, it would be worth it.
Crow's wine shop is a smart little independent wine merchant in the heart of residential Fulham and caters for a fairly well-off clientele. There are wooden floors, spotlights gleaming off cherished display-bottles upon which are price tags that start at £4.95 and don't stop until the £300-mark has been breached…and Crow tells me the really special stuff sleeps downstairs, undisturbed in its dark cellar corner, forty, fifty years old and unfamiliar to our mortal sun, still hiding away in the boxes that were hammered tight before it left the cellar of some famed chateau of Bordeaux.
The walls of the shop – those not hidden by the orderly platoons of bottles – are wood-panelled – soft, dark wood – and the counter is wooden and topped with the green leather you find on those great sturdy desks; a brassy chandelier dangles into the very centre of the room. The place has the look of the Dodge City Bank perhaps, that we've all seen in all those Westerns…wooden, sensitively lit…creaking with money. Except here the money flows in liquid form.
We idle around the shop for an hour or more. The flow of customers is a mere trickle and when they enter I step aside and watch the wine merchant at his work. He launches into well-practised spiels as he sells his wines, but to give him his credit his enthusiasm for the wines comes through as he talks, for he bursts with things to say about each one and often in his hurry to spill out everything he wishes to say he loses his sense…this is typical Crow. But the customer is unperturbed – possibly only half following his jabbering flow anyway – and is always encouraged enough by the obvious passion exhibited to make the purchase.
Crow has a few business phone calls to make so he sends me off to the Green with half a bottle of some red wine that has been sitting on the barrel for tasting, and I stroll into the lemon-gold afternoon with a bottle and a glass.
On Parson's Green pretty girls sit in a sunny throng. I sit too far from them to hear their chatter – there is nothing worse than realising what banal nonsense all girls, and heartbreakingly even the beautiful ones, indulge in. (Boys do it too, of course, but why should that bother me – It's only in objects of beauty that banality is a shame.) I hear the lilting and tittering of their voices without catching the words and it makes me feel involved in a way that hearing their talk of girlish things would never allow; I pour my wine – purple, dark and rich. The sun is so reluctant to go anywhere on these evenings…just sits around, burning…
Wine really is soulful nourishment. So is the sun. After an hour the wine is all gone, gone but not forgotten, for it has lifted my spirits and I am content amongst the summer people of the Green who pass in all their various guises as the late afternoon burns slowly into early evening and the sitting groups quieten for a while as seven o'clock passes, marking the end of the day and the approach of the still-distant night. Ah – the long days of early summer! There is a sadness in their passing, for when they seem about to live forever they die, with a rush of blood to the horizon and a slow swoop of the blue-black death, and while everyday is today there is never another yesterday…it is always a dead thought and never real.
It's still light though as Crow joins me in the park with a carrier-bag of wine bottles and a glass. He picks up my glass and pours me more wine, standing with the low-slanting sun at his back, which makes his brown hair glow red around the edges and highlights the strange leaping tangles of his mop. Have I described this Ben Crow character for you yet? I can do it a few words. Average height, brown bramble-bush of hair, thin face with narrow wicked eyes (his only really distinguishing feature), slim build but respectable shoulders. That’s what he looks like. As for his character, well, you’ll get a handle on that no doubt as this thing progresses, as no doubt he’ll be with me for large portions of it. I’ll tell you how we met by way of adding further information. My first day at a new school – I was eight (joining the school a year later than everyone else) and it was a mulchy September day; my Guide was a boy named Stephen – they appointed new boys with Guides to get you through the first few weeks – and everyone was watching the film Aristocats in the Hall but Stephen said ‘let’s play rugby, you played before?’ ‘no, I play football,’ ‘we play rugby here,’ and we found a ball and went off to pass it around on one of the slippery pitches – it must have been a wet summer because usually the September pitches are hard like concrete, but now they were soft, muddy and ungrassed. A boy came across the pitches from the direction of the Music School wearing untidy jeans and a blue rugby shirt, the now-familiar tangle of hair a little blonder in those days. Stephen looked at him and said ‘Ben Crow’ which was the first time I heard the name which even then resonated with trouble. And he joined in the game and we started tackling one another as we played two-on-one for a long muddy afternoon, playing through the darkening day and falling rain, and I remember a particular moment very vividly: when I was tackled by Stephen and, falling, I just managed to get the ball away to Ben with a beautifully timed dive pass and I realised that rugby, rather than football, might indeed be my game. And so it was to be, for the next ten years. And, for as long, Crow was to be my good friend, through two schools, until we were separated eventually by University. And now here we are again, in London (centre of the Earth), able to take on the world in new ways, and with fresh adult vigour.
He sits down and I see that his narrow wicked eyes are blushing slightly with the onset of alcohol; his cheeks are also showing some character. The shop is all locked up, he tells me, the night can begin.
We drink wine and more wine in the park and soon our souls are overflowing with nourishment as sun and wine drive us on into the night. We walk through Fulham and into Chelsea, a bottle of wine still to go, as the darkness comes and the first shivers of cool night strike us, but with the wine nourishing the soul the shivers of night are nothing but a reminder of the cold life where wine has not yet entered and we slide on untroubled along the Embankment and past the bridges of Battersea, Albert and Chelsea – greystone, pink and white in turn and a-light with lanterns and fairy lights and neon beads. In a riverside park we drink the final half a bottle of wine and watch the sly, peculiar river Thames as it flows confusingly, confusedly, in both directions…does it even know what it's doing and does it even care…? The river looks like a rich vein of thick nourishing wine in the half dark, a purple viscous soulful stream flowing into the secret giant wine bottles at the source and at the sea…the wine bottles of the gods. Oh, those lucky gods!
By the time we reach the party we are drunk and philosophical, theological even, talking about god-ish parties and wines, and we squeeze through the doorway and into a hall where people stand around in fancy dress with glasses of wine…there's some kind of theme, let's see if we can work it out…there's Cleopatra, and there a sheikh, here a wild-looking belly-dancer girl. She's just perfect. A man in a fez bustles through the hall. Some kind of Arabian or Middle-Eastern theme.
"Oh yeah," sniggers Ben Crow, "I forgot. 'S fancy dress. Ah well."
"What shall we come as?"
"Uh, some kind of, carpet salesmen, perhaps."
"Rugs. Rug salesmen. Of modern-day Cairo or Persia. Where they wear ripped shorts and t-shirts and," looking at Ben, "uh, chinos and Jermyn St shirts."
"Or, or you could be, um, an explorer, like, an archaeologist in Iran, looking for clues for the lost tomb of…um, Bethsheba…if that's a, um, a thing, a person…"
"Ok. I'm an archaeologist in Iran. And you're a modern entrepreneurial carpet, um rug, salesman. Yep. Who's party is this?"
"Um, shit, oh – brother of…uh, remember Cat, dark hair, quite hot?"
"Brother of her boyfriend."
"Oh. No idea. Boyfriend’s name – no idea. So don’t ask."
"Were you invited?" I ask in suspicion.
"Invited is such a strong word. I was…made aware."
And with our disguises on we move out of the hallway and through the double swing doors into the party proper.
The room is red and low lit, with walls decorated with arabesque hangings and rugs. The far wall is a bank of windows and sliding doors, through which a balcony jutting out over the river is visible.
"Ah, Cat," says my rug-salesman friend, and moves over the empty dancefloor and out onto the balcony where he cheek-kisses a startled Persian princess who recovers to smile and then wave as Crow points me out: the guy in the red light of the dancefloor, in ripped shorts and a faded t-shirt…he's an archaeologist…I see Cat frown as Crow no doubt explains.
Just then a familiar stranger approaches me.
"Julian Pens?" he says accusingly.
"Hi. Tom Hesty, we were at school together."
"Yeah, of course. Right. How are you?" I smile, as if I've wanted to call him ever since we left school six years ago but lost his number and was held back by Fate, only to be reunited in these unlikely circumstances, but really I'm thinking, 'oh God, this is not what I need, I'm too drunk for this chatter.'
"Yeah good, good." He's a small fellow, dark hair and strange glowing skin…or is that just an effect of the lighting…? He nods, emphasising the two 'goods,'
"Yourself?" I notice he's drinking wine. I need one if I'm to survive this catch-up chat with someone I probably never even spoke to at school.
"Yeah, fine. Could do with a glass of wine though. Know where I can get a glass?"
He turns around and turns back with a glass in his hand. Amazing.
"My girlfriend's. She just left."
"Thanks." Why is it that everyone I went to school with has a girlfriend now? Even these little Tom Hesty types. Once they get a job they want a girlfriend, long-term, sensible…it's in the programme; she wants a man with a good job, prospects, sensible… They suit each other down to the ground, and they'll probably remain together until one of them heads that way – down to the ground… Or else there'll be some pre-marriage break-up as they realise just in time, age 28, that they are not a natural pair. All their friends will think they're crazy as they're so well-suited and they've been going out forever (as if that's a reason not to break up…) and only they will be thankful that they didn't take that awful plunge. Parents will be supportive but twitchy…she's single, at 28! Now she's 29 – time is running out, so are men! Don't worry mother, plenty of divorces coming up, there'll be men around again soon enough.
"…in four years and then I can do pretty much what I like, so…" Tom Hesty is saying when I resurface.
"Mm," I say, and sip my wine. Now I've become the nodder. "Great." Don't know what the hell he's talking about though…
"What about you?" Oh hell. I take a gamble at the topic. Safe bet.
"I'm in between jobs at the moment – you know, looking for a job of some kind. It'sa full-time job itself. But the great thing is…" What's the great thing again? I drink more wine and look at Tom Hesty and improvise badly, "yeah, great thing is I can do anything really, I'm not too, uh, directioned, you know?" Ah, so vague – wonderful. He cannot follow up on that surely. I've given him nothing to go on.
"What sort of thing are you looking for? Any ideas?" Bugger.
"Yeah. Loads of ideas. Um, writing and publishing. Editing. Being an editor in fact, is uh, what I want to do. But I'm easy. I'm open to other things…"
"Yeah. Is there any more wine?"
"The bar's through there," says Tom Hesty, pointing back into the entrance hall.
"In the hall?"
"No. through the hall and into the room on the otherside."
"Ok. I need a drink. Great to see you again. I'll see you later.”
"Ok, have a good night."
"Yeh. You too."
Phew I'm free of him. Chatting to an old school stranger is the last thing I want to be caught up in while my blood is thick with wine and people are sloping towards the dancefloor and all these pretty pretty young girls have suddenly appeared in a swarm and are buzzing around the rooms of the party. In the entrance hall several girls giggle with Champagne – where did they get that? – 18, 19, so neat and smooth-skinned these girls, gap-year tans on their exposed gentle shoulders and the other shards of skin that poke out such as bellies and legs…cute faces of the years before the University drinking infliction and before the care-worn lines of job-world and money-world have settled, deepened and destroyed… Beautiful, brilliant, fine, fine…
I drag myself into the bar room, where two of the walls are windows out onto the river and here are the remnants of the supper we've missed and plenty more of the gap-year girls in their Arab costumes: Cleopatras, belly-dancers, Romany gypsy-women, Persian princesses, girls in Ali Babar tomboy getup – it's like a harem; it's like a dream. No Arab nation ever saw this much flesh exposed. And where are the headscarves and long black cover-all dresses and robes of Islam and Arabia? Not here; the rules and customs have been Westernised, party-ised, decadised… Flesh all about, canvases of flesh for me to draw on…lines to be made…silk paintings…all so good…until…
Not good. Not good at all. Ali Baba suddenly not such a pantomime character…now a very serious character, a character of flesh and blood…and it's the flesh that's really the most entrancing…a girl's flesh in Ali-Babar guise…what can I do…what do you…who are you..? – one of those girls. I want her, but if she asked me why I know I'd look stupid.
She flows by me as if she's wearing river rather than clothes…
But who cares anyway…'snow use…
Except she stops.
And speaks (yeah right, I'm probably imagining).
God, her face is brown and full-lipped and fully ready with those high cheekbones that narrow her eyes just a little…
She says…"I know you…"
Or is it "I know you…"
What have I done? If on my idiotic rampages of the last four days I have come across her then it's all over…me and her…me…my life…all of it…everything. Wait. How is she suddenly everything – five seconds ago I didn't even know her. Or did I? Things take a questionable turn.
But hang on one gadarn second. She knows me. She knows me. Alright. So, cool as you like:
"Hey. How are you?" (Pretend like you know her.)
"Mm, good. You?" She cheek-kisses me. She really does know me. "Julian, right?" Why is this always happening to me?
"Yeah, well remembered." I tactfully avoid the subject of her name entirely, as if it's a given, as if it would be crude to drop it in because of course I know it.
"It's been a while," I say, "last time I saw you was…gosh…um…" inviting her to remember, to jog my memory. She looks at me blankly, bored by even the thought of that particular conversation.
"So…you're Ali Baba," I move on. "Or are you a forty thief?" A naughty thief.
"…And you are…" her sexy narrow eyes narrow further and get yet sexier.
"A rug – no, an archaeologist. I'm looking for the lost city of Bethsheba in Iran…tomb – the lost tomb of Bethsheba in Iran. It's um…I put a lot of effort into this costume."
"Yeah, I can see," flashy smile, glinty eyes…she's amazing…and her Ali Baba shirt is wide-necked and most of her brown shoulders are visible…and it stops above her belly button so that the soft brown belly flesh is exposed. So unfair.
"Well Ali…may I call you Ali?"
"Uh, Mr Baba, please."
"Well, Mr Baba, can I get you a drink?"
"I'm alright, thanks. Maybe later." She holds her glass up as proof – red wine…as if her blood needs warming, softening by this wine… warm enough, soft enough I would guess. I love the toasty streaks in her hair, not blonde, not brown but with shafts of both and probably everything in between. Summer hair. Beach hair.
"Do you know Simon then?" she asks.
"No. We crashed." I level with her, honesty being the best policy.
"Ben Crow and me."
"Ben Crow? I love Ben. He makes me laugh."
"Yeah, me too," I say, wanting to cry, a pang of jealousy so hard in my chest I worry for a moment about heart attacks and swear that this Ali Baba is not going to get any time alone with our modern Cairo rug-salesman. What can I do to keep her with me? I want to keep Ali for me, for me all night. I want to monopolise her…sit in a corner somewhere and talk to her slightly Oriental eyes and listen to her great comfy-looking lips…
"It's quite hot in here…do you wanna go out onto the balcony and, you know, cool down?" How awful, how cheesy, how porno…
"Just been out there – there are flies all over the place. Thousands of them. It’s not very nice…"
"Yeah. The tide's out and the flies are everywhere."
I don't know where tide and flies link up, but she says, "The rivermud smells like shit. Probably is. The flies love it." – Ah, now that's true – how a fly loves his shit!
Not to be deterred I insist:
"Well, I'm gunna go out for a second anyway. Shame, it looks like such a beautiful evening out there…" I muse. She looks half-sideways at me. It’s nearly black night.
"What do you do now – apart from looking for the tomb of Bethsheba of course." Ogod, not this again – I thought you above this smalltalk, girl.
"I did actually once think of becoming an archaeologist," I deflect with mastery, "…dashing all over the world, finding lost relics and cities…"
"Spending hours digging in the hot Sun, only to find a Roman coin or a Coke can ringpull…"
"Yeah. I watched Time Team and realised it wasn't all Indiana Jones, which is a shame really, 'cos I would have been really good at that."
"You certainly look the part." She brushes a tiny hand over my jaw – "Good Indy stubble."
"Thanks. Hey it's low-tide, we could sift through the rivermud for artefacts…how about it? You know they found a woman gladiator – a gladiatrix in fact – in the river or in the mud there I think."
"Hm. I'm gunna say no."
"At least come and peer into the mud from the safety of the balcony."
"Again. I think I might not. Later though, sure."
"Yeah. I was just gunna have a dance with my friends… But later. Ok?"
"Cool." I stop myself from reaching out to touch her on the shoulder, which seems like exactly the thing to do, but some part of my head is still sober, or at least is still scared of taking steps towards intimacy. She turns in her little green Ali Baba clothes and I notice how tight those trousers are around her bum as it walks…"look back"…she doesn't, only heads through the doors without so much as a tarty wiggle of a walk…just walks like a normal girl who's not trying to impress anyone…
I head to the balcony because that is the plan I've set myself. Still don't know who Ali is. For now she's Ali, and already our parting is pain.
Abandoned wine glasses dot the empty tables, easy grab, easy free drinks, I knock a couple back on my way outside, carry one out with me through the glass slidey doors. Cheap party wine – gaa, how it hits the back of throat hard, takes a bit of getting used to, but then when the first glass has gone down suddenly all the rest are rather easier to cope with. There's a snake charmer in this room, a fat Turkish man who's in the spirit of things in a little fez and waistcoat and big hairy chest and shoulders and probably back too. The snake he wears like a scarf, a big thick vein of a snake. I pass close by them. They've got it in for me, I can tell – the snake in particular. He offers me a feel; I decline.
A little girl's talking to me – cutesy, round, pretty but too round – and there's a cigarette in my hand, she must have given it to me. She exhales over the river. "Keeps the flies away," I say, moving the cigarette through the air, drawing in the air, drawing with air, the dusky air of smoke particles…writing my name, chasing flies accusingly with the cigarette…where's Ali…? "Do you know Ali?" but she doesn't, she shakes her bobble head sadly – sad because she doesn't know Ali? Or sad, just sad, why not sad? With Alis going off to dance with friends and no doubt Ben Crows, it is all very sad, the little fat girl and I get left out here on the balcony with the flies, chasing the flies away, smoking away the flies…
Where's Ben Crow? Where's Ali? They're probably together somewhere, they're probably best friends and lovers by now, they're probably – ah, no, there she is, there's the green Ali Baba, still dancing with those friends of hers, dancing and sparkle-eyed having fun. But where's Crow that damned Cairo ruggist? I must state my intentions over Ali, so that he knows… Where – not here in the dance-room, not on that balcony, not in the shaky hall, but back in the bar – here he is, talking or yabbering drunkenly too close to someone's face – oh god, it's the poor little tubby girl again. She's looking for a bad time, searching it out, finding it, first on the balcony and now at the bar. That snake's still waiting to get me. The charmer – charmer, ha! least charming charmer ever I'd wager – he looks at me too, he and the snake, both plotting…but hey! Here's Crow, the man I've been looking for! "Hey Crow! Leave the poor girl. Sorry about him, he's drunk! Ha!" "Hey buddy! Yes! Yes! 'S Tessa. Tessa – 's Pens, my great…my oldest buddy." "Crow. I need to talk to you." "Sure, dude. Fire away." "In private." "Ok. 'Scuse us Tessa…we've got private talk to discuss." Walking amongst the tables again, no more abandoned glasses…oops, there goes a chair…oops again. Outside, with the flies listening in: "Look, Ben. I need to state my intentions. I intend to go after Ali. She's wearing green. I'm telling you this so you don't go for her too, Ok?" "Of course, of course…I've got little Tessa anyway, I love her, she's so glum, it makes me laugh…it's so funny." "Ok, good. So we're clear then. You will have Tessa, I'll have Ali…" "Clear." "Cool. See you then." "G'luck buddy!" "Thanks. You too."
In the dancingroom and that damn Tom Hesty has got me again: "…by the look on his face, but you know what he's like. Anyway I'm surprised he's an accountant." "Isn't everyone?" "What – surprised or an accountant?" "I dunno. Both." Have to keep turning round to look at Ali, boys keep dancing near her, dangerously near…I can't keep talking to this Tom Hesty… "Anyway, good to catch up," I hear myself say, "but there's a girl I promised a dance," and as easily as that I duck away from him and onto the red dancefloor…people dancing to hip-hop…there's Ali Baba The Green with her hair sloshing about and pretty eyes…I dance towards her, no point hanging about, and connect eyes, smile, she glistens, holds my eye, turns towards me…we dance like that, inches apart…now is the time for touch…I already have a hand on her hip, holding her hip, holding the green trousers, dancing with her hip to hip-hop… She's got me now, I can feel sweet little hands holding me, around my back, all the while watching her glisten in the red souk-light…
…but suddenly everyone stops and looks towards the door (as if embued with some strange collective premonitional power) and Ali's no longer hip-hopping but staring past me and as I turn I see the door blown open by some hurricane-force and bursting into the room is a madman carrying a snake as if just lifted right out of the Amazon, and it's lifted right above his head in a feat of great strength as he dashes across the floor, grinning madly, and of course the maniac is my oldest friend Ben Crow. Here comes the hairy little snake charmer after the maniac, scuttling across the floor like a beetle…he's lost his fez… Ben's leading the snake in dance, waltzing it to the sounds of the hip-hop and everyone else we're all just watching as Ben Crow and the snake dance away from the buzzing little hairy man who's like the comedy straight-man as he tries to retrieve the snake. Ali's laughing – Ben Crow, I love him, he makes me laugh – agh, a pang of jealousy again…Crow upsets things, just as I'm so close…closing the deal here…aghh. I start dancing again, watching Crow and the crazy show he's putting on…the Turk grabs for the snake but as Crow twists away he has to let go or he'll hurt the snake. Tired or bored, Crow then stops and simply, solemnly hands the snake back to the little charmer, now a sweaty little ball, and walks off across the room and back to the other room. Ali's face is gleeful, she watches him go and looks at me almost saying you're so lucky to be his friend, and it occurs to me that I can cash in on my friend's popularity and fame, so I roll my eyes as if to say that's my Ben…I'm really thinking 'you always have to upstage me you bastard, you've ruined everything…'
I'm on the balcony again with Tessa and the flies and the cigarettes, making shapes in the air. She's still sad…me too, sad sad. It's like a replay of before…except now the night is spinning and the lights on the river make me feel sick…ferry sick…why do we have to be moving? Moving party…no, no, such a wrong idea…or are we? Agh, the sickening rivermud exposed as well, the sickening flies and the cigarettes, the poor sick sad expression on the round face of little Tessa as she talks about how Crow came to have the snake and how he'd taken it because he thought the charmer had a 'foul look about him, an acrid eye,' he said to her before running off to take it…she wants to know what's wrong with him and I can't help her out.
Ali and I are looking behind the bar…a fruitless search, in the cleaning cupboard where there are only bleaches and detergents and mops…upstairs where there are only locked doors of some offices. There must be some Champagne somewhere…they can't have used it all up at the reception…surely there's always a stash…we're convinced…we run all about the place, searching, giggling, vain search but excuse for childish fun… Here, under the buffet table…? Under the table we crawl…looking…Champagne, where are you? Helloo-oo, Champa-agne…? Ali's got a devilish searching face…her name's Ellie in fact…not so wrong after all…Ellie Baba… "I'm the archaeologist searching…" "And I'm the thief, one of the forty thieves…we'll find the cave and 'Open Sesame,' you must remember that's the secret password…"
On the balcony sipping Champagne, our ill-gotten gains…the night has stopped moving, the river-lights no longer spin, they only shiver. The flies, they have all gone to bed, like the clouds, the Jimi Hendrix clouds. Ellie tucked under my arm, warm skin but a cool shiver…kisses over the rivermud, over the river, slipping back in from its tide-rush, slopping over the rivermud covering all the archaeology, all the gladiatrices yet unfound…not to worry, the kisses keep coming and the flies have gone. All's going well…and to think I took the incident with the snake as some ill omen, a stirring of evil in the air that Crow had somehow latched onto and that was going to break over everyone and destroy the party…and leave us with awful sick feelings, sour feelings…
Ellie's gone. The party's winding down. Other people have gone…many of the bright-skinned girls and their cordial fresh-faced boys, taken away by bored taxis into the night. Crow is dancing with Tessa – she moves so glumly, like a big old dog with death-filled eyes. Crow loves her melancholy, he bounces off it.
I finish the Champagne on my own. Something, that same thing I felt out here earlier with Tessa, something sad has returned to the night. It's not just that Ellie's gone, that I'm drinking alone over the river, that the tide's returning, that the party is dying and its vital signs are shutting down one by one… I don't know what it is. It's just life, I guess. The party doesn't go on into the following day and the night after and the night after – and if it did you wouldn't want it to. No, it's got to end…just seems a shame, that's all. But that's not even it, damn it…I can't get near it.
Distract me from my melancholy then, girl, whoever you are… A last slow dance, I hold her close to me, smell her sweet sweat and just dance, holding her drooped drunk body as it leans in on me. Crow's still dancing with Tessa – I wish he'd stop, I feel protective of that poor little girl, I should protect her from that madman, she's too grounded for him – she knows the world is sad whereas he inhabits some deaf plane where all the moans and groans are unheard. One of them is going to end up – it's going to end in disaster. 'Let's go,' I say with my eyes when they catch his. He nods gravely and stoops to kiss Tessa who cranes her neck at him, tip-toeing and still slowly moving in her gloomy dance. My girl…my little belly dancer…I stroke her hair…she looks up at me and smiles…it's heartbreaking, 'you know, I've already pledged myself to another' I think but don't speak…her make-up is smudged, heavy-blued gypsy eyes, thick mascara'd lashes, deep red lipstick like you might imagine on an old Parisian whore…unkind perhaps…too much make-up anyway, even if it is part of her belly dancer get-up she looks foolish. Me in my ripped shorts, her in her make-up…I feel embarrassed for one of us, but I'm not sure which…too much effort or too little…?
Back at Crow's flat: Tessa sits behind a glass of wine, staring at the fireplace as if it's the very root of all her sadness; Ben Crow is assembling ham and bread and mayonnaise and mustard and lettuce and starts making sandwiches. I sit in the armchair with Jess (belly-dancer) on my knee as we sip wine from the same pint glass, talking about travelling…Jess has just come back from Latin America…she's telling me about Belize and something has just triggered a memory of Bolivia, where I was once, and I'm not really listening anymore but merely waiting for a space so I can relate my tale. I find travelling chat always goes like that…anecdote exchange…story-trumping…waiting for their interminable account to end so you can tell them something really interesting. It's bad chat, but with wine still going down and the beats of the party still humming in our ears we are only really listening to ourselves anyway, so we're all selfishly happy, we just smile and nod at each other.
I dream of Ellie…the Champagne hunt is on again except we're hunting treasure now, real treasure…finding nothing, the hunt takes us down off the balcony and into the rivermud – what's this, an amulet? A gladiatrix amulet? But, quick, the tide's coming in up the river, it’s a tidal bore, rapid, massive…
Ellie has changed appearance, but it's still her. In the newsagent I buy her sweets and she kisses me for it…but there is still a chance I might lose her, so I buy her a newspaper too, and a necklace…it turns out to be the ancient necklace of the gladiatrix, a simple pendant of gold with the burning sun flaming away… Ellie loves it, and she offers herself to me, wearing nothing but the necklace and her own golden skin, also aflame…
I wake up on the outpulled sofa-bed in Crow's sitting room and smell sweet Jess sleeping next to me even before I feel her body or see her hair on my pillow. I feel sick. Don't punish me for my dreams.
Unforgivably I decide to go home, back to my bedsit. The bus shoots over the riverbridge and the misty river is steaming in orange, as if someone's heating it from below with a candle. Over in the east three triplet towerblocks are silhouetted against the greyer dawn behind and hit by the sun's sleep-eyed golden hello. They look like some filmic symbol, some representative trilogy – ominous and huge and sloping over the morning; in all this beauty London has rarely looked more frightening.
I awake some hours later, twisted again, twisted in sheet and feelings of messy guilt, wishing away my stupidity and wishing it all a dream; all of it except Ellie, and for a moment I am terrified she may have been a dream, a vanishing dream, but then she does not vanish – her image lingers.
I sit around for a while, I stare out of the window at the quiet Sunday street. Tourists check in and out of the hotel across the street, old men wearing shorts inappropriately, little white sun hats, and they wheel their suitcases around the taxi rank and direct their wives and daughters. Taxis swoop by and often they do not get in, but wait for a specially appointed taxi; I can’t see the drivers in their taxis but I can sense their frustration. Why don’t they just go? All these taxis are alike.
It becomes tiresome. What’s wrong with these people, and all the people of the world for that matter? What’s wrong with our lives and what’s wrong with those taxis and those wheeled suitcases and what’s wrong with my own backpack full of clothes and why is it still not unpacked? Now I think I am numb enough and bored enough to face unpacking.
I pull clothes out of the bag and lump them on my bed; out come books too, a phone charger, a Frisbee, shoes, and various trinkets of sentiment that couldn’t be left behind but now look rather forlorn as they tumble out amongst all my soft, ironed, well-meaning clothes. My camera, pens, sketchpad and drawing pencils, CDs, portable CD player with twisted headphones…all piling up on the bed like my life. I shake the bag empty and sling it back in the cupboard. I start to pick my way through the pile, putting things neatly away.
The pile has gone. Everything has its place in the cupboard or in the bedside table. My other clothes sleep on the floor where they passed out last night, two nights ago, three nights ago. They stink of fags. Wash ‘em. In what dear Liza? In the machine, dear Henry. Which machine dear Liza? The one in the kitchen you dumbass Henry. Oh yes, dear Liza, I was forgetting ‘bout that.
Emptying the pockets I find a small miracle. I dared not hope for this but, behold – Ellie’s phone number! It must have happened at the drunkest part of the night, as we parted, which sad moment I can’t recall. Ellie (Ali Baba!) 07834 408018 it says. Superb, superb. But I must call her soon, or I never will, before my mind has the chance to pull excuses from its excuse bag, which is always at the ready in these situations. I’ll call her now.
It rings and it rings and nobody answers it – perhaps Ellie stares at her phone, afraid of the unknown number; perhaps she knows it’s me and regrets everything; perhaps she is asleep or in the shower. It dials off suddenly and says ‘this number is not available.’ Perhaps I wrote it down wrong.
A new week begins, and it begins better. All my clothes are orderly, even those wicked smoked-up garments that waited on the floor for their idle master to take action are hanging by radiators and windows, smelling soapy fresh. My head is clear and the sheets of my bed untwisted, the morning shower is for cleaning and not cleansing, and breakfast is for day-ahead energy and not for the soaking up of a nighttime’s sins. Ah, it’s a golden life and good to be plonked suddenly back in it.
I love the great subtle crunch of toast and the soft sunny butter. And tea with its browny orangey certainty, and the throat-soothing stroke of its one-sugar sweetness. Mornings should be glorified. Look, when they’re blue and bright, how the world sings and all its creatures with it, a humming song of bright metal and warm soft things gently coming together and being thankful for the same soft sun. It’s all toast and butter and milk and tea. Some days don’t we wake up like we’ve just been born?
And having been born we need to find ourselves a way in the world, and that is why today I must restart the process of jobhunting. My money isn’t going to last forever, after all. My grandma left me some money when she died and I’ve used some of it for travelling and the remainder to set up my new life in London – what better use could I have for it than giving me a start in this world? It has seen to my first couple of months’ rent, so I am safe from the bailiff and his men for a little while.
But it doesn’t mean I don’t need a job, so off I set, this June day, into the bouncing city, bouncing along myself with all the great possibilities of what I’ll become running through my head – a great editor perhaps, writing the most perfect forewords and prefaces for the rare new talents I’ve unearthed – revolutionary talents the like of which have never been seen before; a publisher, ruthlessly tossing manuscripts aside until the one raw, flawed, but workable novel arrives on my desk and I work with the brilliant young author to create the modern masterpiece, a book on the scale of the great books that used to be, and not the thin and whiney volumes of our thin and whiney age; or perhaps by pure chance (and in a completely different vein) as I stroll down the streets of the West End I’ll hear this ‘You there! Yes you! Stop! Come back here will you!’ and I’ll turn and point at my chest and the slick grey-haired man in his night-blue blazer will shout ‘Yes, You!’ and I’ll walk slowly towards him noticing the growing gaggle of excitement behind him and he turns to the massing pile of girls and boys and he’ll say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! I’ve found him – my new Hamlet! A Hamlet for the modern day!’ and I’ll go on to wow the lot of them as I read the lines, showing them the most downright honest Hamlet they ever saw and it’ll be all down to the freshness and purity of my untrained acting style, and, gosh, how the bored and weary critics will love it! And I’ll change theatre forever. And then the movies of course. And the beautiful Ellie will call me.
All the possibilities of London are open to me this June day, and even the lively air seems to carry that feeling because it is so fragrant and full of life, and a gentle breeze fills up any space that the world might have left empty and the whole day seems so full of everything that it might just burst with its own lively excitement. I walk the streets of Chelsea, heading east into an ever busier city, thinking ‘there must be something in my eyes for passers-by, something that lets them know I am great, something that speaks secretively about the great things that are occurring beyond those eyes even as they pass, even as they look, something intense, something smouldering and concentrated and boiled down and potentially ferocious and burning. They must see it to look at me, they must look in fear, for who does not fear greatness who is not great himself…?’
The early signs are good: Vacancy, Assistant Wanted, Staff Required…these signs in shop windows and pubs indicate a wealth of opportunity, that there is stuff out there, waiting to be snapped up, but they won’t do for me of course because I have bigger and better things on my mind. I have my future, my glorious future, and these glimpses of opportunity are like the little stars of night shining honestly away and my future is the rising sun that lurks just beyond the greying horizon ready to shine a big old light into the world and eclipse the puny twinkles of the little stars. Barista Wanted, Sales Position Available…fine fine, keep ‘em coming, eyes open for the big one, eyes open for the dawn.
I visit an employment agency, one that claims to be the ‘leading light in media recruitment.’ What are you looking for they ask me. I am unsure what to say, surely they should have seen the greatness already.
“Something creative. Editorial. Publishing.”
“Ok. Um, well we don’t have anything right now, but have you got a CV, if you leave a CV we can keep it on file…”
“…and we’ll call you – got your contact details on here? – yes. And we’ll call you if something comes up.”
“Do you get much of that sort of thing?”
“Honestly, not very much. Have you tried any other agencies? Some down in South Molton Street specialising in uh, creative jobs.”
“But, you’re the…leading light…?”
She laughs, the large framed woman in her thick black-framed glasses, her white shirt feels the pressure of her bosom.
“True, true,” she smiles through her lipstick lips. “I’ll do what I can and let you know.”
I thank her and leave the red office, believing her.
She knows my sun is rising. I hit the street again and continue my eastward progress, she knows, as one day they all will.
All the other lights of media recruitment shine with about the same dull intensity as the leading one…palely they take my CV and make promises and then see me off, nodding hopefully as I depart, watching my glow depart no doubt and thinking ‘what life-giving light is concealed within, what astral power is waiting to burst forth, what lion will roar, what city will fall, what…whatever.’ And then the CV is placed in the grey filling cabinet with all the rest, biding its time, waiting for its mighty dawn!
And the other option is the great and almighty Internet wherein lurk the gods of Gainful Employment, so I find myself a computer in an Internet Café and plug myself into the world and I consult the modern oracle, scowling into the machine that claims to be the medium through which us mortals and these gods may communicate, checking for omens and picking through the auguristic innards of the slaughtered on-line beasts for some clue or encouragement. The signs are, as usual, inconclusive. My oracular power needs work, I think. It’s all very well having the visions of a mystic but if you can’t interpret them you’re no closer to understanding the meanings of the gods than the local sausage-seller, you’re just an unfortunate with mad, bad dreams. So then, best to simply whoosh off my sacrificial CV to all the deities I can find – for they all must be honoured – even those without the authority to make my desires come true.
Soon my prayers grow a little hollow if I’m honest and nothing from the gods augurs particularly well. I leave the awful buzzing temple and my eyes see less well in the glowing surprise of the heaven outside and take a while to adjust and by the time everything seems real again I’m confronted by the great green glow of Green Park, as it earns its name in the juicy afternoon light. The green and white deck-chairs on its lawns remind me of marquees and gazebos of 1930s scenes and sweet games of croquet; the dazzling clothes and skins of people spread an unreal light, so many jobless or lunch-hour loungers happily dotting the bright grass. This is one of the great glowing peopled parks of London.
I sit on the grass, but somehow it feels less green and it is certainly less plump than its glorious glow suggested. The ground underneath is harder than I would have guessed. I pick at the grass a while and warm my face in front of the sun, closing my eyes so its white heat becomes an orange fuzz, with veins of gold and red and arriving throbs of ascending green and blinking starships of blue. There is nothing to think about except how the sun warms and glows…and to follow the golden paths and slow moving starships of my eyelids…until I feel I might be going blind and open my eyes away from the sun and the world is a dizzy flash of white and then a settling green where the starships still orbit. A girl walks by me with tanned skin slipping up into her red shorts and disappearing under clothes until hair, golden hair, spills over the stripy t-shirt and frames more of the healthy skin. Ellie flashes across my mind instinctively, hopefully, but it is not her, and the notion of her goes. But even her ghost across my mind is enough to make me wistful, and to long for things I don’t have – I long for exotic holidays and luxury and seas, most of all for seas that begin at my feet and end at the horizon – if there – seas that are warm and bright and fat with fish that will leap out of the water for me. And palm trees, much more ephemeral than these roundabout eternal oaks and beeches that hang on and cling to life, more ephemeral and more wind-bent and more provisory, what with the coconuts they lob down and the wide-spanning leaves that I can interweave to create my desert-island shelter, and the great spidery silhouettes that cause the waves to shudder as they see the fringes of land against the bloody sunsets. All on my own and so blissfully unbothered by money and jobs and without need for green and white striped deckchairs and parks in the middle of cities…so perfectly, beautifully bored…
The long legs and red shorts have passed on and away forever. Where could Ellie be?
I walk the streets towards Chinatown, but of course she’s not here. Ellie in my mind again, I need distraction. And – sniff – what distraction’s this? Smells invade, subtle smells…fading are the smells of hot roads and soot, bus fumes and hotdogs – the smells of London – and gently overcreeping is a bouquet of scents altogether more mystical and delicate. The odours of the Orient gather and mingle and sweetly tease the nose, dispelling trafficky smells and faintly hinting at Chinatown’s nearby existence – it’s just down here somewhere – and Chinese shops start to emerge onto the Theatreland streets, cropping up among the kebab shops, cafés and office buildings, outposts of the deeper Chinatown beyond.
What are these smells of Chinatown…what secret components are blended…how do they create this alluring, exotic, beautiful, sweet reek…? Chinese cuisine, of course, is at the very heart of it, Chinatown being little more than a couple of streetfuls of restaurants oddly interrupted by a bookshop, supermarket or mystic old apothecary. But it is more than that…more than just the spice of a sizzling Szechuan or stirring Chow Mein – it is certainly different from the scents raised by my own efforts at stir-fries or sweet-n-sours. Perhaps there is some ingredient of which I am unaware, or perhaps there is a secret method that remains closely guarded by those secretive Chinese: perhaps the missing ingredient is the smell of their strange and ancient knowledge, or perhaps it is their sweat; perhaps it is the vegetables mulching in the back alleys, emitting their soft perfume; perhaps it is the hard work of this people’s history, the desperation of their exile, or their disregard for our obsession with hygene and sterilization, and their preference for the natural, left-to-itself rot of living. Perhaps it is the smell of contravention of EU food safety laws.
And that’s it for me, once I have smelled it I have to enter. For it smells like a noodle bowl of tangled mystery. And I love to look at the shining red ducks hanging in the windows, succulent as the cartoon boars in Asterix comics – how I love the gloopy Chinese ducks! And the nuclear orange of strange squid and the limbs and trotters of pig and hooves of cow; the spiky stinking vegetables and fragrant herbs; the beautiful brushed language that looks like art, each character a character indeed, way more characterful than are our carefully-arranged but wonderfully malleable words full of letters (if only I knew what these characters meant – or perhaps best that I don’t for then the spell might be broken). And the people themselves: flat-faced, faces that never smile, only watch through the narrow eyes which like arrow-slits protect their castle within and you expect the arrows to shoot out at you and keep you away, you barbarian of Anglo-Saxon such mongrel blood. Generalisations of course but just what I see – I won’t apologise for generalising. Anyway, the Chinese protect their Chinatown with these fierce eyes, not unfriendly and not hateful, merely calculating and protecting.
I walk back along Gerard Street and pass under the Chinatown gate and the sweet smells of the fabled Orient dissipate in the London onrush, but this is no bad thing, for suddenly London has an exoticism of its own: a sooty, rushing city-smell, a commercial and unforgiving smell, hard-edged, with no time for delicate spices and the gently rotting vegetables, and only for the exhausts of the cars of people zooming to their business and creating a city.
Two weeks later and the weather’s turned and summer has hit its first false end of the year, just as it’s begun. And I’ve been pounding streets looking for work and no longer do I dream of publishing offices where the literary stars are made, but perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to slip my way in as someone’s ‘assistant’, a photocopier and teaboy, and from there can the big things come, gradually the big things come. But nothing so far, nothing, and it’s tiring and draining and now that the weather has slipped away my enthusiasm seems to be waning with it, overcast and overshadowed by the grey, and unshone-upon, unglistening, unsparkly. But I keep up the plod and today I plodded and searched and found not one place to go and deposit my worthy CV and not one on-line oracle who would speak to me, rather they all sat staring dumbly at the rising smoke of their altars as I yelled at the entrance to the cave, they would not come and see me, would not acknowledge me with an echoed hello, would not even look up to see who it was that cried out to them.
I am special. I look at my reflection in the window as the bus stops to acknowledge me. Look at me – I really am special. I could do a lot for this world. Just nobody sees it.
Oh…I gaze from the top of a double-decker, heading home, through the London drizzle. It's not raining…but it can drizzle in London without even a drop of moisture being spilled. On grey marble days something falls from the sky, something atmospheric and heavy – the clouds droop down around our brows and we are held between the marble stone air and flat impenetrable street-ground. From the bus I see it hold down the top-hatted, tail-coated doorman, the made-up careerwoman, the glove-under-epaulette bellboy and slick-haired suit man…even the excited tourist is eventually beaten down by the hard pavements and dry drizzle. London's drizzling and I'm melting, melting into the streets, or maybe just being trodden in like those chewing gum splodges.
There is a part of the CIA web-site where you can find country profiles – quick overviews of any country in the world with all the basics you need: exports, imports, all the stats and titbits and advice. If you look at the UK's profile it will tell you that over one half of our days are overcast.
I’ll visit the British Museum, I decide. There’s a good grey-day activity and something that always got my spirits up as a child and even as a teenager when we had school trips here and I decided not to run off to a pub or go for cheeky fags round the corner, but instead to wander amongst all the extraordinary things collected within. And what a fine building it is too – a fitting temple to knowledge, to discovery, to the British skill of finding stuff and bringing it home. What more noble thefts than those whose evidence lies within? Ah – the secrets and treasures of the world are here!
I slowly museum-walk through the civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean and Persia: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Mesopotamian, Babylonian etc…these mummies here, covered in hieroglyphic beauty; these wonderful gates charting the stories of empires, dynasties and peoples; these relics, statues, burial traditions…so much time and space covered so quickly…each exhibit a flicker of an era…
I shudder. I shudder to realise that history has swallowed up so many people and civilisations already and soon it will rush up and swallow me too and make me a part of it – perhaps even an unmentioned part of it – the horror! And there is nothing I can do to prevent this. I suppose I have always had this subconscious notion that the past is simply time that the world has passed whilst waiting for me to arrive…of course stuff has happened, but none of it really matters anymore. And now here I am and the world shows no sign of even giving a shit! Nor of slowing down and stopping its whale-like feeding on the plankton of human existence: the big mouth opens and – whoosh! – we’re sucked up and gone. Cru-el.
I stroll inattentively through sections dedicated to the Far Eastern cultures, then the Mesoamericans and Andeans: all the world has sent ambassadors of their history here to fill us with fear. The museum is not unlike London itself – tiny little slices of every country in the world all gathered under one roof and we British all walk around half-staring, half-ignoring what these cultures have to offer and thinking 'we own this,' but how can we…surely these things are too old to be owned all of a sudden. And we shudder to think about the onrush of history…who’ll try to own our corpses?
Ye gods – so much to learn! How depressing it is to realise how much I don’t know and how much I will never know and I start to wonder if there’s any point going through life acquiring knowledge because there’ll always be something more to learn and therefore a life in the pursuit of knowledge will always be incomplete, a failure. You can never know everything. Not even the Internet knows everything, and if the Internet can’t, how can a man? And besides, what about all the things that have never been discovered, that neither man nor machine will ever know? Here, in this great museum lie the stumbled-upon artefacts that are but a sliver of history, of eras past, of all the men and women who ruled and served and thieved and died and were consumed by the mud and will never be found. How many thousands of British Museums would be required to house them all? Perhaps the never-to-be-known even greater secrets remain in the swallowing mud, in the earth that we all succumb to and only the lucky few are prised out of by the future’s archaeologists and farmers and cleaned up for the museums, there to lie as symbols for entire civilisations.
And so what started out as fascination with all the exhibits in their glass cases and studious reading of all the captions and wall plaques is gradually reduced, as I weary in the museum atmosphere, to a depressing acknowledgement of how much stuff there actually is to look at and to read, even in here, nevermind the undiscovered crap lurking in fields and underseas…here is enough…and I will never even get through all this, not even one British Museum’s worth, let alone those thousands yet to be known.
I leave the museum, eventually actually so discomforted by the confusion awakened amid all the many things of the museum that I walk into an Oriental bookshop across the road and buy myself my first piece of Buddhist literature – all I can afford is an old magazine from the spring of 1980, published, no doubt and fittingly, as I emerged into the world in the March of that year – to help me find a way through all these things of life. After all, the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas of the Museum looked so calm in their ancient knowledge, so smug in their enlightenment, that there must be something in it. I sit on a bench and read.
And, thinking about it now, away from all the things in their glass cases, I can remember that everything that I have just seen in the museum is merely phenomena: all the things picked up by my senses, these are phenomena, these things I touch or see or hear or smell – things that appear to and are interpreted by my senses and mind. Put that way, they seem incidental – ‘pff, mere phenomena.’ Just a whole load of perceptions…nothing to be afraid of…their very existence depends on me and my senses. And if they are not frightening then what is the noumena but a great big cosy void – a place without fear and things – an empty place consisting of only the orange dust that settles in my mind when I close my eyes…yet a place where even emptiness and orange dust cannot be…where nothing can be seen or known, where everything is beyond our understanding (blissfully so). Aaaah… If only I could close my ears too so that the pigeons’ gentle coos would cease to exist, or numb my body so I couldn’t sense the slight breeze that tugs at my t-shirt and hair, and the wood of the bench under me. Phenomena still tugging at my other senses, even when my eyes are in the orange safety of my own personal noumena.
I am quite liking my noumena at the moment. It feels like being in the womb again, in fact memories of the womb seem to come flooding back…of times before phenomena existed…safe in nothingness…
“Excuse me mate?” I open my eyes and am blinded briefly by the white light. Someone is standing over me, speaking to me. Before I can see again I respond with a squinty smile, as if to say, ‘may I help you?’
“Anyone sitting here?”
I look at the bench next to me. There is no one there.
“Uh, no.” I say and move along because that seems to be what he wants. When my vision returns I look at him and see a man of about forty, stubbled, with long hair and hippy, tie-dye clothes of orange, yellow and red. He smiles at me and I back at him, nervously – he looks like some old-school hippy with a lifelong drug habit and he scares me a little. I am wary of these types of people – the older ones anyway, the dirtier ones. This guy is dirty and old and has that slightly loopy look about him that makes you think he’s not quite all there and neither is he really in control of mind nor body and he might do something irrational like suddenly stab you with a needle full of heroin and AIDS and – Doosh! – sink the plunger… I start to stand up but before I can move he stabs at my knee and I get a sharp shock shooting through my body as all my stupid fears about him seem to be coming true – but my mind has leapt ahead of events and provided me with the zing of pain I was expecting from the needle; there is none, just a hand grasping my knee. Shocked, I look at him. Uh-oh. I squirm on my bench. He’s not even looking at me.
“Um,” I say, and then he looks at me with his crazed old hippy eyes, eyes that swirl with the murk of a month-old goldfish bowl…God knows what he sees through those things. I look at my knee, his hand, and say “What are you doing?” not in an unfriendly voice, just in an unwelcoming one. I know he’s not all there and I don’t want to freak him out with threats or bad vibes or anything like that, besides he’s probably still got that needle full of heroin stashed somewhere, ready to plunge into my neck.
“What’s that mate?” wild eyes, pink and crackling, shiny with wet.
“Could you…your hand,” I say, looking at him and then down at my grasped knee.
“Huh. Oh, sorry mate,” says he, and looking surprised he removes the hand and brings it back to his own knee, watching it all the way, as if he expects it to wander off of its own volition and making it seem as if that is what’s happened in the first place. When the hand is safely on his knee he watches it for a few moments, before looking back at me and smiling a kind of embarrassed grin full of brown teeth and black holes.
“Ok, I’ve got to…” I mumble standing and walking edgily away, “…go,” I finish to myself. Goddamn freak.
A rotten, rotting man – a man in the very process of being swallowed up by history, in fact. But what kind of museum would ever show off his corpse in a glass case? He’s not even well-preserved during his own lifetime, in fact he’s already decaying and losing teeth – some of those skulls in there, in that museum, still have more of their own teeth than him. He’s not a keeper – a poor specimen, poor man.
The bus ride back is all about shaking off thoughts of him, thoughts of death, thoughts of the people of the city, all of whom are dying pointless deaths, unbeknownst to them…
Another day – grey and solid – and after my usual fruitless wanderings I visit the National Gallery. Downstairs there is a little painting I have always loved since the first school trip here many years ago, and that I particularly want to see. It is tucked away in the shameful underworld of plasterboard walls. ‘Attributed to Georges Michel’ reads the caption. Dark clouds over open fields, lego-block ruins on brown empty earth; shadows, darkness, a doom-filled sky, doom-cast land. A lone figure walks away from the painter, from the ruins, and across the barren, ochre plain – all the bleakness of life summed up in a single landscape. It's beautiful, but you wouldn't want to be there. It's sad, but it doesn't make you want to cry. It's just so achingly true. They've called it Stormy Landscape With Ruins On A Plain – no cleverness or embellishment, just what it is. And Attributed to Georges Michel, don't you see, attributed – they don't know for sure who the artist was because whoever it was he simply walked away, like the figure on the plain…it’s so perfect…
And after that there is not much for me to do but walk back home through the streets and parks, the lego-block ruins of the future, a lone figure I cut…the sky is not yet stormy or doom-laden, only overcast and drizzling as I described before, in that dry London way. The ducks of the park splutter and cough and the pigeons ferrety coo, Muslim women feed them at the pond-side, tearing up their bread; a little black boy rides his tiny bike away from his father, great excitement in his open-smile face, shining huge eyes, his father smiles and watches his boy race away; the Muslim children laugh at the coughing ducks fighting over bread; the little boy on his bike turns in triumph and wobbles back to his father; loud French chatter approaches, walks by, then fades away, jabbering. London is this strange bunch of people swept up and bundled in together into this most unnatural living arrangement where we walk and sleep and sweat side-by-side and don't even know anything about each other: not names, nor races, nor cultures. It's this ridiculous big melting pot of Babel, but there isn't enough temperature in all the Bunsen burners of the world to melt us, and we stay as waxy solids, unable to melt and mix and change our constitutions…a melting pot full of unmixables…someone has made a mistake here. Not all the ingredients have been sufficiently heated; I for one haven't melted yet – it's not that I resent being in here, in this big pot with all the other metal or wax or whatever we are that someone's trying to melt, it's just that I can't possibly be expected to mix at my current temperature, while I am still a solid. I'm not making this up: it's all right there in the laws of physics or chemistry and clearly also biology has a word in it too.
"London is messy… These messy things happen. But all is forgiven. People are so hectic in their lives that they quickly forget others' misdemeanours. Plus they are struggling with their own guilt, their own mess. Believe me, you're among the guiltless, you have nothing to worry about. What's a single boy playing a couple of girls off when people are going round this city mugging and stabbing and raping grannies and such awful shit. Torsos in the Thames, black magic, you name it, any kind of depraved and fucked-up deeds you can dream up someone in this very city has done it." Crow speaks emphatically over his wine glass.
I suppress my fear. “Scary thought.”
Crow shrugs. "Terrifying yes. But it's the nature of the city-setup. The city way of life. It’s fucked up." A chill passes through me to hear the optimistic Crow speak thus.
Crow has cooked a fine lasagne and we're eating it at his flat, a bottle of Chianti stands empty on the table. The conversation has returned to the Saturday night of the party on the floating boat club, Crow telling me straight away that he is meeting Tessa for a drink tomorrow (she agreed glumly to his proposal on the phone as if submitting to miserable fate rather than to her own desires) and that he fully intends to start seeing more of her. He asked about Jess and Ellie of course but guilty me had nothing to say so I heard his thoughts instead as he tried to explain to me that guilt is unnecessary, and then I heard his take on work:
“I don’t know why you’re so worried about a job anyway – you do realise that work completely sucks don’t you?”
“I need the money, Ben.”
“Money shmoney. You’ve got your little pad in Chelsea, you live ok there, I’ll bring you your wine occasionally, you should just sit there and be a writer or something, write some great novel and then money won’t even be an issue and nor will a job.”
“I don’t think I’ve got the head for anything so epic as a novel. My mind is too small. I’m not sure I could create all these complex characters and plots and subplots.”
“That’s fine. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye – no plot, few characters. Just some kid wandering around New York. But written well, humorous, small things happen, things that kinda mean something. You could write that sort of thing.”
Why does he mention that book, that book terrified me. I would have to kill myself if I were able to write such a thing. Horrible young cynic.
“It’s been done.” – coldly.
“Yes, but the author’s not alive today.”
“So it’s different today. That was some adolescent, right? Some teen who couldn’t fit in? …Well write about today’s adolescent – the 23-25 year old just out of University and trying to find a place in the world.”
“Think about it – until we’re 23 or so we never had a day’s responsibility in our lives – we were kids all that time. In th’Old Days kids of 16, 18 were expected to go out and earn, adolescents… Now though, even those things that were always traditional causes of so-called angst in adolescence – sex, fashion, place in society – these are such open issues that people think to have ‘em figured out by the time they’ve done their GCSEs, it’s only at 23 they realise they don’t know what’s what. It’s the old adolescent worry about the End of Childhood, that’s when we finally have to face the world with some kind of responsibility, and that is about now in our lives. It’s a whole New Adolescence. Teenage years are full of goals and achievement and bouts of inconsequential drunkenness. It’s early twenties before we actually confront the issues that used to plague the spotty ones. Seems to me.”
Adolescence doesn’t exist, what a stupid notion Crow you great fool – it’s just an old excuse. How can we write about things that don’t exist, I’d rather write about a pine cone, which at least is real and can be studied.
“…I can’t emulate great novels of old…”
“Course you can.”
“I’m just not made like that. I could write observations of things. In the Old Days I’d have been a poet, only I never learned anything about poetry because they never really taught us about it. We read John Donne and Shakespeare but it’s hardly going to inspire you to poetry yourself, especially because of all the rules about meter and rhyme which we weren’t even taught. They taught us to study poetry without for a moment thinking that we might want to write it ourselves. I have a theory about this.”
“Well, you know how we learned Latin, but only did Latin-to-English and never English-to-Latin?”
“Well, I think since they stopped teaching English-to-Latin we have stopped learning how to think in compositional terms. English-to-Latin teaches you important compositional rules that would be of great use in creating the forms used in poetry. But now we don’t get that sort of training from the age of eight as people used to; we just translated Latin back into English which just taught us to spew forth unformed prose. In the Old Days I would have been a poet and not a spewer of prose, which is all I can ever be in this day and age, without English-to-Latin and the all-importance of grammar and cadence and word order. We were merely rewarded for getting near to the meaning of the Latin – we did not have to engineer language.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“And now – ”
“ – now we have children growing up without the basic skills of language at all, they don’t have to study any foreign languages, they don’t realise the importance of grammatical knowledge (how can you if the only language you know is that with which you are born?), and they send more words in text messages per day than they write on paper..”
“Actually there’s something in what you say and I have the perfect example. Chap called Alex left work last week and we got him a leaving card, which we all signed, of course, with the old traditional wish of luck for the future. One of the drivers, a nineteen-year old, David, wrote his message with ‘2’ for ‘to’, ‘4’ for ‘for’ and all the other text shortcuts as well as ‘lil’ for ‘little’. And the words were made up of cAPitAls AnD lowER cAsE lEttERs as if he didn’t know the difference. I was genuinely shocked – what if the entire country’s youth are writing in this way? English as we know it ’ll be gone in forty years! There’ll be this bizarre language-mixture of numbers and vowelless words – a real Newspeak!”
And here’s me wishing I could write poetry when the nation’s illiterate youth would never even be able to read it!
“We’re all children of our age I suppose and this is an age of unprecedented stupidity…rudeness, indifference, apathy. I wish I could be a child of another age, when we had a sense of pride in nationhood, respect for others before it became RE-spec’ and before religion became suspicious…”
“Ah Jules, you can’t be nostalgic for a time you don’t even know! Every age has its problems.”
“Yes, but the problems of today are things that I feel strongly about. Things that make me…” (…sick). I drift off.
“You wouldn’t feel strongly about them if they weren’t current problems…”
Fine, I’ll let that one go, drink my wine up, look at the postcards on all the kitchen cupboards.
“Suzy’s party on Friday, you know. She’s off on Saturday.”
Suzy. Suzy, Suzy…
It's a quiet night in Putney. We sit in the kitchen with windows widely splayed, open to the dull night and all the insects and tiny flying specks of insects; the rooftops of Putney sit dark and dumb below the third floor flat, dropping with the terrain down towards the river and affording a distant view of the BT tower, the London eye (not quite as terrifying as the Great Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings but making me think that there is a Great Eye watching me all the same), St Paul's I think, or possibly some other high-domed cathedral, other light-flecked buildings amongst the unmoving mass of anonymous houses and offices and the moving blips of the planes that whiz past the stars, overtaking with the greatest of ease. They are actually visible out here in Putney, the stars. The sky is almost its legendary blacky-blue, but there are tinges of the London light dying it purpler – spoiling yet romantic tinges. And the night is quiet; the fizz of London is constant and slow, a going-flat-Coke fizz, but there are no local sounds. Anyone walking through the streets of Putney at this very moment must be tip-toeing, shoes-in-hand, soft socks brushing the pavement.
We look out into the night a while, wondering about the silence and the fizz: is it the sound of all those atrocities being committed undiscovered in the night? Is it simply the sound of traffic and the grumbling of the trains? Is it the creaking of every building complaining in its foundations? Is it the sound of every last person of the however many millions we are, some breathing gentle sleep-breaths, some yelling drunk in clubs and pubs, some chatting solemnly and praying, some crying on the streets? Is the sound human or mechanical or natural or a great mixture – a fizz of chemical reaction perhaps escaping the great ugly melting cauldron?
We tiredly move into the sitting room and stick a film on and it just washes over me nicely. Whenever Crow speaks or even moves I wish I were alone.
Friday and the night of the Clapham party, the leaving party. A great friend of mine is leaving London: Suzy. We’ve sort of missed each other in London, in this life full of collisions and misses our planets have swung by harmlessly in space – and in fact almost as I arrived here, she departs. It’s typical of our relationship. And even the short time we have been living in the same city, she on one side of it, me on another, I have not seen her – we may as well have been on distant continents, and in fact we sometimes have been and even then we were closer. Like the time she lived in the USA and we exchanged dedicated long letters which I loved to write and loved to receive. I’ve never felt closer to a person than I did my distant writing Suzy – we were great together when we were apart.
The day started hot and hazy and grew blue and hotter, and the leaves were just itching on the trees, brushing and thrushing at one another irritably, keen for autumn – death and freedom – which still looks an unlikely eventuality. Here am I on this hot day, lazily stirring, eventually rising and eating and showering and tooth-brushing and dressing and before long library-heading to check the computers for jobs and perhaps idle away time in newspapers and books. It's not a day for pounding London streets with the frustration-cloud of the jobsearch hanging over me and occasionally drizzling its steaming oily rain…too hot, too humid.
I sit in a Fulham park and watch mad dogs and their old gent Englishmen or sometimes younger men and women who control the leashes, or sometimes undo the leashes and control their beasts with the vocal whip. Mummies like to walk with their pushing prams along the paths and joggers even in this heat sweat around desperately.
Morning has gone, afternoon passes, evening arrives, finding me staring out of the bedsit window onto the Chelsea football ground, drinking long glasses of water, beginning another letter to my brother.
Como estas? It’s been a month since I came here, believe it or not. A month that has passed slowly in a way – days of job searching stretch eternally in front of me every morning with their hopelessness. Quickly though, for I swear I last wrote to you a week ago, but no, ’twas near one month.
But never mind the small talk, I’ll get straight to the point: Suzy’s leaving tonight and I don’t quite know how to feel about it. It feels strange. On the one hand I am sad to see her go, of course, because we have always been so close, such good friends. But on the other I am pleased that she is disappearing as it might finally allow me to ‘move on’ as they say, even though I have been ‘moving on’ in an impermanent way already. At that distance, from away in Switzerland, it may almost be easier to remain friends because we’ll be able to e-mail and write letters occasionally, when we want to, rather than feeling the pressure of having to be such regular friends (which we’ve failed to do while I’ve been in London anyway and which I think we both realise with regret).
Just reading over what I’ve written –I don’t suppose it really makes much sense to you. Actually it doesn’t make too much sense to me either but anyway I hope you’ll forgive my attempts to unburden onto you…
But you know Suzy and you know what great friends we’ve been…God, I’m really writing like our friendship’s over aren’t I, writing as if this is the final chapter…? But what I think is true, is that now the complications will disappear. Everything is finally set out in clear writing, at last! Now that she’s emigrating I really know where we stand. Friends abroad, distant friends, penpals – Good! So simple!
As for the rest, well, still jobless, still searching London for that golden egg with my name on it. It’s too big a place to begin to know where to look but looking I am, high and low, as I said in my last letter I think, looking for jobs in publishing but I have yet to even receive a politely worded letter of rejection – my rejections have all been silent ones…of course I’m the only person in the whole 12 million (or whatever it is, I hear a different figure all the time) in this city who knows my great potential and no one else wants to hear about it anyway…
All out of money, feeling very poor. I am going all out for scabbing drinks tonight at Suzy’s leaving party. Scraping by on meagre food but it’s fine, I’ll survive, and at least the rent’s all paid for next month in advance.
Better go now or I’ll be over-fashionably late, and as you know I’m not particularly fashionable. Look forward to hearing from you.
Love to all the animals of home (inc. the rentals).
If only you’d write back I’d feel a little more connected, ah, sigh, woe is old me.
I change into a shirt to be smart enough for the party, for Suzy might appreciate my effort, and put on my nicest shoes, not-too-baggy trousers, check my hair in the mirror and decide I am Ok to hit the streets.
The air is storm-laden but still the sun slips through onto the buildings, gilding them; the breaking of the sky is inevitable and has been promised and we can all sense that promise as we walk down the roads towards our parties and homes and summer nights – people look excited at the prospect of a real rollicking storm.
My bus slips across the riverbridge, passes through Battersea and into Clapham, where pubs are exploding onto the streets, drinkers taking in the anticipatory air of pre-storm, perhaps trying to draw on some of that electricity to energise their long Friday nights ahead. I walk amongst the bustle and everywhere there is a thumping sound of music – from the cars that pass it booms out boastfully, from the pubs it seeps out, and it vibrates from the flats piled upon the fast-food chicken shops, kebab shops and burger bars. The streets are a moving display of ethnicity: ‘out of the melting pot and into the fire.’ White, black, Asian and probably one or two things in between all stride happily, bumpily, together. While the more famous sites and buildings north of the river are clearly London's face, I always get the feeling that South London is its soul, (some would say arse) because it is less obvious, it is subterranean yet all out-there and exposed, bared to the world if only the world wanted to come and see it. Also, it beats like a heart or a soul, has rhythm. It has the melting pot atmosphere too – the melting pot that isn't really melting – skin types walk and huddle together darkly on the streets. There seems to be integration one-on-one, but not at gang level… Then there are those who will not take on the garb of the city, will not clothe themselves in its garments, but instead still wear the robes and headwears of wherever they call home and whichever culture they look to. There is every Godly race: Arabic, Persian, Caribbean, English, Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Amazonian, Andean, Patagonian, Irish, West African, East African, Chinese, Japenese, Nepalese, Eastern European, Mediterranean, Portuguese, Turk and Turkmenistani…but you'd be hard to pushed to find anything obviously British, although apparently that's what we all are. Over the river, in amongst the landmarks and tourists, Britishness is a petrolly rag shoved down your throat, as London – Majestic Capital Of Britain – is celebrated, and England is fairly forgotten, but down here the English still stake claims to their city and their land, and the West Indians and East Indians and Indians from all over this Indian world of ours bustle them aside to fill the gaps.
Hell the club is called. A red and fiery kind of a bar/club with neon scraping the walls of bare brick, inside and out; it looks like a converted garage and probably is, nestled in amongst the railway arches. The bar is a mess of people and I squeeze through to find the sideroom where the party is – Scuse me, scuse, sorry, scuse me – in amongst the warm bodies full of drink and Friday night energy. And now I suddenly catch the same buzz and want to be part of this London Friday night and I come through a door into the party room and see my friends buzzing around too, also full of the great excitement.
Soon Crow and I are yelling at each at the bar before parting to go and yell at others over the music and under the red-yellow lights. People are buying me beers as fast as I can drink them as no one has seen me very much recently and they are surprised and happy that for once I am able to come out, but the fact is with Suzy going away to live in Switzerland so soon I have come for her sake alone. Suzy is one of my greatest friends and anyone who says that men and women can never be just friends…well, they're right I guess, Suzy and I weren't always just friends and in fact there were times in my life when I thought that we would probably end up making some kind of confused life together but we never communicated and the confusion and the fact that there was often great physical distance between us meant that things were never really set in concrete. We had no consistency, just on-and-offs and we didn't even know what was going on ourselves. So that's Suzy – a great friend and one time more than that – she's off to live with her boyfriend in Switzerland, so her life is certainly more concrete than when I was involved. At last I see her across the room and go and talk to her, shout about visiting Zurich, make promises, suggest a dance and we do our usual useless rocknrolling and keep missing each other's intentions, twisting and twirling the wrong way or at the wrong times…laughing about it because it's so typical…we sit down in a corner and talk until other people join us, then I slink off (not willing to merely share Suzy) to go and find others I haven't seen for months, in some cases a year or two perhaps, and of course they're happy to see me and buy me drinks…Hell is not so bad, after all.
Later the room seems suddenly darker – the red-yellow lights have faded and purpled, the background is black and the atmosphere more vampiric, like a Transylvanian crypt disco on a stormy night, speaking of which the cracks and papows of deep thunder out over London occasionally smack through the odd lull in the music, adding to the atmosphere, or maybe it's the rollicking trains above. And everyone's dancing now, perhaps slowly or maybe just in slow-motion, I'm dancing with Suzy again, but this time not our clumsy rocknroll but a close-to dance because I know soon we will be very far apart indeed. We're better at this dance because our rhythms coincide as if naturally, as if the false moves of the rocknroll fail because they are not natural enough. Reminds me of the old days – not so long ago in truth – when we’d end nights of dancing together with kissing and bedsharing and then the sweetest hangovers I ever had the next day, waking up with her smell already in my nostrils and the quiet in-bed conversations of what we should do for the rest of the day: in autumn it would be walks on windblown hillsides, in winter fireside and film days, in spring and summer strolls across insect-humming green parks or cartrips to the seaside and acres of beach all to ourselves. One February we walked along clifftops of the South Coast and watched the sea boil, grey and thick and like molten lead with leaping spirits that flung themselves into the rocks and stacks of the broken shoreline and thence dozens of metres into the air, all so that they could escape the bubbling ferment and rise as freed bodiless angels into the lighter grey of the air. Suzy made no demands. On second thoughts perhaps it was later in the year – April maybe – because we went swimming in the calmer but still leaden waters of a protected cove, changing into costumes right there as the rain began falling and tiptoeing over the shiny rocks and into the startling sea. Suzy plunged in before me, emerging from underwater slick-haired like an oil-slicked mermaid or seal as I steeled myself with the water at belly level, steeled myself for the final plunge. Shouts of encouragement from Suzy as I stalled, then flooped into the deaf, blind silence of underwater. And I emerged to her laughing voice as she’s tangling with gross seaweed, suddenly finding herself in a thicket of leg-grabbing slime and the laughter became more genuine disgust “Eeeuuugh! Arrgh!” and more nervous laughter as the little seal head grimaced and quick breaststrokes moved her away desperately. And of course our rained upon clothes were cold when we returned to land, soggy and cold, and so we went to the tearoom to eat scones and jam and sink warming cups of tea into our bellies and blood.
The bar is humid with dancing bodies, intense, slightly crushing. We are pushed together often, squeezed up against one another, cheek to chin as well as body to body…no one else around us do I recognize, we seem somehow to have been separated from our friends, cast-off, adrift and beautifully isolated. I'm shouting in her ear, I must talk to her. No talk to be had here, not in this crush and under this music and in the sinister vampire-light…I suggest we go outside and so we scrummage through the people on the dancefloor to find our passage out.
At the door the copper streetlight shows fine layers of rain or down-sliding mist and we pause. Suzy's little face breaks into query, looking at me for guidance, forehead a-crinkle, lips squirmed to one side of her face – a most girlish look.
"Come on. It's only light." I steal her away from her own leaving party. "Well, it is your leaving party, it seems only fitting that you leave."
"Ho ho, Joo-lian," goes her sarcastic little mouth and I curse myself for having given her cause to use that witless laugh.
There is a storm happening somewhere and we can see and hear its flashes and grumbles but it is unclear where all the action is taking place and we crane our necks but too many buildings crowd in on our view of a larger sky – so red, that sky. We are in the light pre-storm or skirt-of-storm drizzle, filmish rain that you barely see until you look at a lit background, rain that settles like heavy dew on your face and clothes as if you're an unmoving blade of morning grass. We walk through it anyway – it's cooling and we're wet with sweat already and enjoy it, it refreshes. My ears are pounding as we walk quickly down the street towards the Common and I can barely pick up Suzy's faint voice talking about how she enjoyed seeing everyone and I'm thinking 'I actually wish I didn't have so many friends (or I should call them acquaintances perhaps), although they bought me beers which was nice, I really haven't the time nor the inclination to keep up with them all and I don’t care or even know what they’re doing.' I tell Suzy and she frowns at me, smiling, and I can tell she agrees at least a little.
"In fact I'm going to cull friends. Yes, a good old-fashioned friend-cull is what's needed round these parts. Not that I didn't enjoy your party of course, it's just that I only really came to see you anyway and if you hadn't been there I probably wouldn't have bothered because it would have been no different from all these other things that I've missed so why would I start with this one?" She merely smiles again.
"Well you're doing it in a way too, you've just got the Zurich excuse. I don't have an excuse so I'm just going to do it and stop seeing some people, which I've done already really, the thing is I just now have decided to make it official. As of this moment! You're safe though. Even if you are going to Zurich, you're not getting away, I will not cull you. Nor will I be culled by you, for that matter!" We are walking the path along by the Common, in and out of the streetlight, and in the moments of light she looks concentratingly at me and in the dark I just see her head as it drops and goes along over her walking feet. "We are going to write as we always do when one of us is away, yes?" I'm feeling slightly alcoholed I suddenly realise – wooh – perhaps that's why the stern look, or is it just her face of serious moments when drunk, I think so. "And if I can I'll come and visit, if that's Ok with you…and with, uh, Markus of course. But first I need a job, because I understand Switzerland is rather expensive, and there are the flights too, in the first place. But, oh, we can go skiing definitely, I'll have to come out in the winter and we can go skiing together…and in the summer we can go hiking in the mountains…?" "Of course, Jules, that'll be wonderful. Do come, yes," says her voice but surely she doubts not my intention nor honesty but my means and that's why the furrowed brow…and anyway she's probably thinking of doing all these wonderful things like skiing and hiking in the beautiful Alps with her man Markus rather than me…
I say, "I will miss you. I always really miss you," and her eyes look sadly at me, flickering, reading me. Before I realise it I am kissing her, just softly on the lips, sadly, we're just expressing something that words wouldn't, tasting a little of each other and savouring the essence, mixing it with our own… When I pull away we smile at each other and almost shrug and walk on.
It's almost too late by the time I pick them up – they are camouflaged into the bushes behind them, waiting in an unlit pocket of night on the edge of the Common, facing the path, the road, us. They must have watched us for a few minutes as we moved from one orangey glow to the next, heard us too, perhaps, as we chatted. It's too late to turn around now – it would be too obvious, we must walk on past them. Four of them, I can see four anyhow, staring out silently, making only some cool rustling noise…or is that the rain in the trees... Eyes ahead I walk on, feigning ignorance or indifference, saying with my body language 'it's ok boys, whatever you're up to, I don't wanna know…' Suzy's hand reaches into mine at probably the wrong time and I sense her tense up and our discomfort is made obvious to the onlookers. We pass and they mutter. A krak-ak of thunder makes me start…then a rumble…now that they are behind us I can feel them watching like bright-eyed animals. The road and the path are empty and how I now wish for the busy London traffic to nosily bustle in and make this place safe…oh – a lightning flash, a pause, kartow-ing thunder…the heavy patter of heavy rain beating the pavement like the running steps of a man…Suzy and I sense something and turn as one but it's too late, the man is almost upon me, I free my hand, face him, he's airborne, flying at me – oosh, kick lands on my hip, spins me, knocks me down – arghh, the hard ground stabs my knees, my elbows, cheek, head. He jumps on me, I’m angry – ‘Why, what the fu– ?’ flashes through my head – argh! now my back, I convulse, shake him off, roll onto my back and lash out legs that catch a hard bone of something, the weight abandons me completely and I get up, Suzy's squealing protests, and I grab her hand and "Run!" I yell, but already two others are on us and krak-ak-k goes more thunder and I fall – or was it a punch? – my head explodes with internal lightning, Suzy screams as I welcome the pavement into my life once more and there is a white Air Nike next to my eye as it fails and blackens…
…"Might. Might." Might what? What am I saying in this dream?
And then I wake up…surely now I am awake, I can feel the cold wetness under my cheek and lips, feel the dull ache of my head. But still the voice says "might" then "you right might?" A South African voice…ah, 'mate' not 'might'. I groan so he'll shut up with his hurting voice. Suzy! Where is Suzy? Shit, Suzy! What did they do to you? What, where are you? I try to articulate these thoughts and end up moaning a dribble into the pavement. There's a hand moving in front of my eye. What is this weirdness? I roll over onto my back and feel my body creak in various pivotal joints, my hip feels like it’s poking through my skin for some reason. Ah, the tangerine light of the streetlights bows over me, rain dashes down on me and I'm filled with an intense and bitter anger. "Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!" I yell at the damn lights and the rain and the South African voice and Suzy, where is Suzy? "Suzy!" I then try. "Where’s Suzy! Hey, the girl…should be a girl…somewhere…close, find her, the girl, Suzy…quick, they might…have her." I can't say rape, I can't, it can't be happening to my Suzy, fuck and damn I feel sick just to...
"Suzy's here, mate. It's alright. They're gone. Suzy's Ok. You're Ok."
"She is? You're sure? They didn't…?"
"It's Ok. She's shaken up a little…she's Ok," says my still unseen Samaritan, or let's face it my personal Jesus, Buddha and David Hasslehoff… I struggle to sit up and his hand at my back and on my arm guide me up.
"Ok…easy mate, Ok."
His hair is rain-slapped down over his big skull, blond no doubt but orange under these lights, his face is slightly squished and stupid-looking but I mean that in the least offensive way…I guess I mean he looks like a big farmer boy from somewhere out in the bush, with the shoulders and the will to drive cattle all day and maybe even fight off rogue lions that prowl around his herds…I don't think my head's quite right…
Three other figures I see – one stands back to me and the farmboy, outlooking, perhaps on the lookout for those same lions or even some vultures that come in after the kill to pick the bones; then two figures on the kerb, backs to us too: little Suzy, thank God – and Jesus and David Hasslehoff too of course – …she's sitting soaking with a big white arm around her and holding her tiny body and down-flopped head.
"Suzy!" She doesn't turn at the sound of her name.
She blames me. She blames me for what happened – I failed her, I failed to stand up and defend…I flopped sackishly to the ground and passed out…but for how long…what happened… Gulping, I turn to my South African.
"What happened? How long was I? What did they do to her?"
He considers this – I can tell he's weighing up what sort of impact the truth is going to have on me in my current state – breathes deep, considers some more.
"We saw from over the Common. Saw the black guys come at you, saw you go down. We ran as fast as we could, and, uh, one of the bastards was pulling your girl here into these trees – "
"What! Wha– "
"And we hollered at 'em across the grass. One of 'em was undoing his belt, heading for the trees too" (shit I'm really going to be sick, from the very deepest reaches of my stomach, it's all going to be puked up, all the drink and food and organs and bones) "but as soon as they saw us they were out of there man, real quick, like scared fuckin’…niggers, man."
"Did they touch her?"
"Well, one of 'em had her pinned down…but that was all they could do."
"That's all?! That’s all… So she's…Ok?"
"Yes mate. Pretty shook up you know, but I think…physically…she's fine."
And moments later, as I contemplate all this, the Police car silently draws in and if it wasn't for our South Africans they would have been too late and I am not yet ready to think of the 'what ifs,' my head feels sick and heavy and all I want is to sit with Suzy in a bath or bed and look after her if I still can, if she'll let me. She flies to Switzerland tomorrow to be with her new Protector.
They drove Suzy home in the Police car in the end, and me in a different one which I had to wait in the rain for and answer the questions of almost unbelieving policemen, probably unbelieving because my words weren't aligning themselves very straight as they fell out of my mouth…things muddled and muddied, but oh well they got the story out of me in the end and a car went off to cruise the Common roads and some officers danced out on foot into the rainy dark spaces of South London to track down some evil little bastards, as perhaps they do every night.
Now here am I in the bedsit once more, clicking my tongue and thinking of the night and the strange way it all panned out and of course the time in Hell seems like another day, another era, a beautiful and innocent time before the demons of the Clapham Common night swooped into our intimate rain-soaked long goodbye and infernalized everything. Clicking my tongue too to think of my parting with Suzy and how it happened so quickly in the end, and so unsatisfactorily and spoiled and not at all like my plan of the long honest talk along the roadside. Clicking my tongue too at my naivety or stupidity or plain bad luck.
I have nothing alcoholic here, ah by Jesus, have I ever had greater need? I want to pass out, simply pass away from the suffering of the night. So, unable to sleep, what with the unceasing whirl of brain and throb of pain, I click my tongue in solitude. I told Suzy I would phone her at the airport tomorrow on her mobile and we hugged and that's about all we said. She told me she was fine and just shocked and more than anything scared for me…but I bet she won't sleep either tonight back in her schoolfriend's Camden flat and maybe is clicking her tongue too. Or perhaps she is crying. Or maybe she has some booze to latch onto.
I replay everything this night, again and again. Replay, replay, replay… So many times… Try not to, but: replay… I should copy and paste that passage here a hundred times so you too replay it and replay it, as I do, throughout the night, but to you this is a story and not an experience, so…
…This night is eternal, infernal, internal…
…It's like I'm chewing a piece of meat…round and round in my mouth it goes, chewed and chewed and I haven't realised yet that it's a piece of everlasting gristle and it's not ever going to go. If I only I had the strength and the sense to spit it out…
…Suzy…Suzy, little Suzy Q, whatcha gunna do? Near-rape. Does it scar? Must do. Near-misses…almost as bad, they say. Think about car accidents – they often occur after a near-miss… Ee Gads, what awful thing is going to happen now? Suzy, oh Suzy, why-yi-yi-yi-yiii?
Why all that…that intent to harm…why such devilry…? Why these shapes in the night in my room…why punished more…why Suzy must you go, now that I need you most and you need me…you know you do. Why do I lie here with the light on, unable to trust the dots of darkness that trick my eyes and abuse my brain and swirl with evil eyes and creeping shapes that form from innocent wardrobes and dressing gowns hanging on hooks…London, you have much to answer for…what evil have you fostered…what have you and your spawn done to Suzy…my Suzy…?
Ah, stop whispering things at me in the dark, you invisible wretches! Stop saying my name and fleeing, stop your heavy-breathing noises from beneath the bed! Stop moving in the dark and then disappearing in the lamp-light! You can’t survive in light, can you? The light dispels or kills you. I shiver in the coolness of your departing spirit. God, please bring morning, quickly, I need it. My clock moves a minute every hour…speed things up or else knock me out…but it just goes on and on, this night, and my eyes get tireder and make up more things, and my mind gets weaker and cannot deny them and “Go Away!” I’m shouting to no avail, “Go Away!” to things that snigger just audibly, and my mouth is dry and my head thumping and there are pulses behind my eyes that want to get out…the more weary I become the worse it all gets... “Oh, why can’t everything just go away!”
I sigh, I turn, I rearrange the pillow, I turn the light off because it’s too bright to sleep and turn it on again when my mind paints its dark pictures in the black canvas room, I sigh again with tired anger, and thrust eyes down into pillow, hot unsoothing pillow, I feel eyes on my back and turn again to stare at the blank ceiling, the ceiling stares back, blanker than ever, blanker than me – if only my mind were like the ceiling, white and blank, then I would sleep, or maybe then it would just be a blank canvas for even darker shapes, ah, sighing through the night and the blankness while all the bitter, bitter anger singes my head inside and it feels ready to burn, I wish it’d just explode…
The first tube rumble and screech this morning. Ah – what bliss and relief. The night is over, morning – she comes. The grey light around my curtains has predicted this a while, but I thought it just a trick of the eyes – of eyes that have grown so used to the dark of night that they read it as grey – but no, this is genuine day. And am I turning nocturnal – I feel I must be, for now sleep is sludging over me with the day, retarded beast. Scared of the night, unable to relax, better now in the coming day. Are all nocturnal creatures scared? Are the possum and the owl and, and, the…bat…?…
Even my comfortable young life has been able to confirm what Buddhism proposes: essentially, that life is suffering. After twenty five long years I feel able to state with confidence that life is over-and-above-all sad – with the all irrefutable proof we have that suffering is at its very core how can it be anything else… Ah, what happy thoughts occur to me these days – life is suffering! life is sad! pained! Waking thoughts…and the thoughts that always manage to manifest themselves in my dreams in some form. In dreams happy moments are always tinged with a sense of loss, a sense of fleetingness.
Buddhism – I’ve read that little journal I bought – tells me that there are four Noble Truths in this world and they are these: that pain and suffering exist; that the causes of pain and suffering exist; that the causes pain and suffering may be brought to an end, and that this end may be achieved by adhering to the Noble Eightfold Path. But here I am on a Saturday at noon lying on my bed with my 1980 Buddhism magazine open and it all of a sudden seems rather removed: how is it going to help Suzy? How are the causes of her suffering going to be overcome? How will my Right Thoughts and Right Deeds and all the other Rights that these Buddhists propose, how will they help my Suzy in the Alps, my Suzy who I have never treated other than Rightly, in thought and word and deed, by Jesus? The whole world would have to be Buddhist for this to work, and I think we know that isn't going to happen…I suppose this is why they become monks and live in monasteries and mountains and other such places beyond the reaches of civilisation and all its cruelties. At least Suzy is going to Switzerland then, where the mountains sit and listen and the land abounds with calm dairy cows and Buddhist-monastery-like cow-bells and where it is hard to imagine any crime or illness. I had better phone her…her flight leaves in an hour.
I get only the sad voice of her answerphone and leave a message, a rambling stupid message asking her (eventually) to call me when she arrives and unpacks and has had supper and has relaxed a little. Switzerland is not so far. It's not like she's gone to distant continents of moonrock and jungle.
I suddenly want to go to a mountain myself, to go and find a cave and just read books and burn warming fires in my cave entrance to keep away bears and wolves and to cook the meat of the little rabbits and squirrels I have caught by genius little traps laid in the woodland along the valley. And I'll eat them with all the berries and nuts I can harvest and live a life of peace and lacking in the cruelties of the wild civilised world (hush about the death of your poor sentient beings, it's nature's way) – the only cruelties will be nature's own: Weather, Hunger, Thirst, Death, all of which I'll overcome through a natural and tuneful way of living or else accept. It’s going to be so great. And occasionally I'll walk down from my mountain into the town and I'll trade for what supplies I lack in my retreat and talk to the people of the town and gather what news of the world I can, maybe even get drunk who knows, but soon enough I'll be glad to return to my humble home – though not in a smug way but in a very simple and honest way – as I rejoin the path up the hillside and progress towards my lofty perch.
Do such wilds exist on this concrete isle or are they all already irrigated and farmed or perhaps marked out as a National Park and ruled over with a conservationist iron fist? Surely there are the Highlands where little bothies nestle into the harsh hills and there is not a farm nor a pub for ten, twenty miles… Or crooked hidden valleys in deepest Wales where not even a sheep passes wind… Or am I dreaming of the vast tundra of Eastern Northern Europe or the tumbling mountains of the Abruzzese Apennines or the Slovakian Alps? Or maybe even the Canadian Rockies and Chinese Himalayas…or just any place where life is simple and unscathed.
I try Suzy again. Again the sad voice replies hello, apologises, asks me to leave a message, but this time I decline because the voice is too sad.
What must she think of me? What must I think of myself? Perhaps I am too naïve for this town, or too weak for its rough nights… But it cannot be my fault…it surely cannot. Those bastards, those…what was it the South African said...? Argh, why couldn’t the great pot have melted them, why do they have to hate me just because I’m white, why do they have to try and rape white girls and assert some territorial right, some tribal superiority? Is it that they hated us as soon as they saw our moonglowing whiteness in the streetlights as we made our innocent way through the rain towards them? do they blame us for the Slave Trade? Do they long to be in the majority? What’s the jealousy or hate that provoked this attack? Or are they just bad? just demons with no conscience, living in hell already and therefore with no fear of descending there? – Ah, the melting pot’s too good for them, let’s just let ‘em burn in fact in a pan of hot olive oil, no olive oil’s too good for them, let’s go for vegetable oil, second-hand vegetable oil.
When I think of them it is like a film – simple unquestioned violence; I think of sweet Suzy and she is the most innocent thing in my life; the two do not marry well and together they make me feel ill, and even now the stomach drops out of my abdomen when I mesh the images. I even think of her going to Switzerland, neutral fresh-faced Switzerland: boarding the aeroplane alone, taking her seat by the window; it makes me sad that she looks over England as she flies and is no doubt thinking 'ah, good riddance,' and that she is above all pleased to be leaving us.
There was a time when she was happy to return to this country, a time she happily met me at the National Gallery (this was before I lived in London and was just a merry visitor) and went around with me looking at all the Turners and I showed her the Claudes that hung alongside and told her how Turner bequeathed his own paintings to the gallery on the condition that they must be hung with the Claudes and in that way showed his admiration for Claude, his own inspiration, as well as cleverly highlighting all that he’d done in his career, how he’d built on the legacy of Claude, was the next link in the chain – she nodded sensibly with a furrowed brow apparently impressed and then taught me something about Freidrich in another room.
Saturday and it's overcast. I'll just stay in bed today, at least until the sky starts to show some promise or until I find another reason to rise…
The first reason is to make coffee: the roasted, earthy smell, ah, makes me think of weekends at home, when my parents put on the coffee and everyone has their little day-ahead plan of how best to spend the Saturday and the weekend and we talk and then disperse on our respective missions…
The second is to make breakfast. After each activity I return to the sanctuary of my bed and read, all swathed in duvet. This takes me into the dreary afternoon and that dead time of Saturdays which is three or four o'clock, at which point I decide to face the world and I stroll through Chelsea, along Gilston Road and The Boltons staring at the magnificent houses: white and massive and like the Parisian house of the Count of Monte Cristo as I always imagined it.
London is a wonderful place, wonderful and rich and full of the great achievements of men. Still opulent. Those houses around Holland Park and up by Regent's Park – wow, they are even more opulent, now owned apparently by crazy-rich Arabs mostly rather than the European princes and Cotton Mill Tycoons that originally had them built. Individuals rise and fall, but someone else always fills the lucky void they leave behind. Gosh, it's not all cruelty out here in civilisation then, and perhaps if I one day had one of these magnificent homes I wouldn't want to crawl into a mountain cave and hide from the world but maybe I'd swing and parade through it with a great merry grin on my face and life would be a great happiness with only moments of sadness.
And look! There I am moving in! And the wife follows, little nippers in tow, excited to be moving house even if it is only down the road from Old Chelsea where we had a two-storey flat near the river. How the children love this place: the house is so huge and the rooms, high-ceilinged to me, are each one like a palace to them, like a great hall. And we have a proper garden so they can kick and throw and run to the content of their little hearts and legs without having to go to the park under Mummy’s or the nanny’s watchful gaze. Ah, how the children love it here! And the wife too, because finally she’s getting the lifestyle she was used to growing up with her father, the great Lord de Louche of Everhurst, and what’s more she now has confirmation that her husband has made it – he has become the great man that he always promised to be. His work is renowned and appreciated and well-rewarded. Ah, how the world has smiled ‘pon them all!
Silly dreams. And I could not hang on to a magnificent house forever because someone would come along after me and take my place in the echoey grand hallways and smooth-lawned gardens and my house will mean nothing…but we know that already. I guess ownership is always temporary, in fact everything is except perhaps death, but who knows about that, maybe that is too, for why should the one great unknown be the exception to the rule…
What's the point of falling in the deep eternal kind of love anyway then, it's never going to last…just a temporary solution to our unavoidable solitude…time-tiding till death. Still, I wish Suzy were here…we could have fun testing that theory.
The streets are hard and, for God’s sake London, stop drizzling on me!
Hmm, what to buy? So much food on the Tesco shelves, so much choice and yet I must make the right decision…two pounds fifty for food this week…what do I really want right now…and can I stretch it? I feel the need for protein and vegetable…how's about some of this smoked mackerel – always good and flavoursome and no doubt full of fishy goodness and only 98p for this decent packet. Cabbage for the green, carrots for all those eye vitamins I need especially for night vision which could do with improvement as we all know now after last night. Rice the great cheap filler. Ah, I'm going to make myself a Saturday night feast and top it all off with a big pot of coffee and sit there in my bed again full and happy. I buy the stuff and start to cook.
But about halfway through the cooking process there is an interruption as my phone bawls at me and I consider letting it bawl: go on, cry it all out my dear… But I check to see who it is because I have a needling prick of suspicion in my belly and indeed I am right, 'Suzy mob' lights the screen and so I pick up.
She tells me about her flight, it went well; about Markus' house, it is large and neat and…European is the euphemism she chooses. I tell her my thoughts of the day: that her escape must have been thankful, that I too want to escape, that I want my mountain and I add to the fantasy that perhaps I'll keep some goats, not to keep me warm on the long winter nights or anything sinister and sexual like that, but just to ensure a source of meat and also give me the ability to trade with the townspeople below. In fact, as we talk the fantasy becomes more involved and detailed and I keep wittering away and adding ideas that crop up and forget Suzy is paying for a long distance mobile phone call, but she plays along just glad to talk and hear my voice I think, although probably wondering what the hell I'm on about, unless of course she's had such thoughts herself. And of course the longer I prattle the more I ruin the simplicity of the idea, which was of course the original point and I think by the end I have a sort of Robinson Crusoe setup, with all the trappings of society except an actual society, and Francis of Assisi-like I am surrounded by all the beasts and birds who love me and whom I doth love in return, a dove settles on my palm and I plant a saintly kiss on its cooing beak…a rainbow arches between my shoulders – woh, enough!
Sweetly and uninterrupting she listens to my plans from all the way over in Switzerland as perhaps Markus wanders around in the background, watching her silent on the phone. When I have finished she says "Joo-lian, that sounds perfect." – how right you are my Suzy, perfect is exactly what it'll be. She signs off with a big sigh and I go back to cooking sighing too, picturing her by a big lake in a bland house with the unimaginable Markus – a very light blue neutral image, with white backdrop mountains.
After my big tasty feed I sit on the bed and sip coffee; warming, it slips down to my belly and makes satisfied gurgles-spurgles. I go for a walk in the brown warm evening and watch people in their Saturday night mode: excited, revved up, keen, yelling and cruising, spreading themselves out over the city or huddling together. I feel above it all in an un-superior kind of way, like the future me in fact, the me of the mountain coming down to town on a rare visit to trade and explore and remind myself of the world of man. Not at all smug, just observant. In the end I climb back up the mountain to Bedsit Peak, thankful for its solitude, and I look at the ceiling and my fuzzing eyelids for the length of the night wondering how the townsfolk below lead lives where everything is always touching everything else.
Half-dreams spiral through my mind, shapes form in the dots of darkness in my room, objects approach my eyelids, cries from a nearby nightclub violently break my dozy thoughts…my narrow window on the fifth floor seems strangely accessible from the streets…I fear a break-in…the dark faces of my assailants bow over me and Suzy remains by a cool cobalt lake sipping hot chocolates from eternal mugs…my swollen eye throbs suddenly and out of nowhere. I muster my duvet about me despite the warmth and turn to face the staring white wall, then roll onto my back again so that all is visible, then turn onto my other side, my out-facing left side where my heart beats in its ribcage, pounding the mattress and communicating with my other throbs and pulse-points, carrying on like this the whole night long.
If I were in my cave, I tell myself, I would get up from my goatskin bed and walk out into the stars and climb further up the hill, watching the inky universe and listening to the wind and the secretive night creatures, breathe deep, stretch my arms out wide and yell or sing into the darkness. Instead I turn the bedside lamp on and wonder what to do, then make some coffee, get out a pen and a notebook and start writing down how I feel. It's not the same as singing my anger out into the wind, but it helps. I could write a letter to my brother of course but then I would not write all that I need to, there’d be some restraint, and some is too much.
It's six o'clock in the murky a.m. and I'm still going. Thoughts are flowing freely from my pen but the aching hand has become messy although who cares because I don't ever need to read it, it's the writing of it that's the thing. Anger over the assault has flowed into Suzy-thoughts: regret, longing, love (both types), acceptance, happiness, sadness, guilt; most of all the awful thought that I never want to share my life with another anyway because I am selfish and don't have time in my one granted lifetime let alone one halved for all that I want to do and discover…the follow-up to that being the smack in the face thought that if I don't have anyone to share life with all these thoughts and feelings I have will remain abstract and never become real; this puts me back at square one or even zero because now I cannot even go to my lonely mountain because there all I'll ever have will be thoughts and feelings and nothing actually real – and therefore I won’t exist. Unless of course I do practise my affections on the goats…
Up in the morning, still unable to sleep – my face tingling and throbbing, my head sore, bladder full, I go to the bathroom. Behold my face. My right forehead lurches violently in a colourless lump, my left cheekbone aches when I move it. My top lip has grown. My eyes are tired and sorry, a pain in them, a pain in the mirror, a pain reflected in the shell I stare at, in the eyes just beneath the shell, in the greater void beneath that. My beaten shell finally resembles that which it contains, that which it is supposed to protect from the world; my beaten shell, beaten face, lumpy head, they are the ugliness inside me – my exterior shows the whole of me. The puffed eyes cannot open fully, will not show a spark of life, will not flame because there is nothing inside alight…the eyes are tired and…and green – that is all I can say for them. They are green, a sludge green, a Thames green. I am green, sludgy, Thamesy, gurky. My bruised shell is green, or might be, my mind is, my eyes too. Yes, that shell is me. It can be no one else. It bears all the signs of me, it has lived with me, it shows my pains – it is me. At last the eyes see themselves in the mirror, at last these eyes betray the thoughts that occur in the mind beyond them, the thoughts that swim in murky green sludge all night, living aptly beneath a messy shell and sorry slurry eyes. I am me indeed, and I am all alone in this one, alone with my shell and my eyes and my visible green thoughts. Here, inside this shell, there is a man.
A tired morning. Sunday mornings should be: late, golden, blue, tinged with something sleepy, smelling of coffee and bacon, lunch-preparing, stacked with newspapers to examine slowly, bruised by a slight breeze over warming grass, afternoonward drifting; more coffee, radio news, sound of cyclists passing behind the hedge in smooth gear-click clunks.
Today is: grey, with only holes of washy blue, smelling of coffee but the lingered coffee of last night; blasted by a wall of sleepless exhaustion; newspaperless, and with no roasting lunch in preparation. I switch the radio on and hear the Sunday prattle rising above not the cycle-clicks but busy Fulham-Road traffic of motorbike screams and bus rumble-coughs…diesely, thick and ill.
As the steam rises off the fresh coffee the telephone rings – ah, parents, trust them to call when I need it but alas I cannot really bare to talk nor can I even articulate words. Tired I answer, coffee-spinning the pot, breathing deep dark aromas of Peruvian hillsides as I greet my mother.
Our recent pasts move between us via satellites and cables, the sounds I make reproduced in her ear by a vibrating drum, her voice replicated exactly by my own clever phone's interpretation.
"You sound tired," she notes sadly.
"I'm…not sleeping well." I’m sick, I feel it coming…
"Aw I'm sorry to hear that. Have you got something on your mind?"
"Well, Suzy's just moved to Switzerland."
I omit the rest for now, swallowing.
“Surviving Ok? How’s the money lasting?”
"It's pretty tight. I have food, enough for... Money's almost gone though. Mum, London’s so expensive, you wouldn’t believe – "
“I know, darling. Maybe you should take a break for a while. Why don’t you go and see Auntie Caroline – ”
– Oh, how much I want to escape, just board that scything train and be swished into countryside and to revisit the great deep skies of Wiltshire, green and blue and wide Wiltshire, country where the land rolls and dips and wiggles and soars but most of all cowers under that spreading sky, its Almighty. The land we lived in for so many happy, formative years, the years before the Odyssey began, the never-to-return life of living in foreign towns and villages, an unglamorous and unsure life far from everything but the immediate family (where at least there was a quiet love, so I cannot pretend an unhappy or neglected childhood, more’s the pity, for then I’d have your sympathy perhaps).
"Mum, I'd love that. Will you – ?"
“You want me to ring her for you? Hang on, I’ll give you her number in fact, you can give her a call. I’m sure she’d love to have you.”
So it's settled. I'll go, flee, escape this barbarous London with all its barbs and Barbars and Barbary apes. Lord, I’ll go this very day if at all possible.
The landlady comes up to talk to me about how I’m settling in, looking on in blonde wonder as I pack; hastily I pile up clothes as if escaping holocausts and nod and smile to allay the questions of concern she lays before me. Poor sickly-sweet German landlady leaves bemused as I shove her out and lock my door saying, “Anyway I must be off – I have a train to catch. I’ll see you in a week or so.” Before she can even think that the rent’s due I’ve left.
It’s the first time I’ve used the tube since the day of my city arrival, and that time I faced it with three in-flight beers in my belly and a cheeky pre-train whisky. Now I am sober, sober and fragile, and my claustrophobia and fear of the underground resurface in the form of a vertiginous stomach and the nervous, anticipatory tingle of my bladder. Lucky it’s Sunday and the train is near deserted; lucky Paddington is but a few green stops away and is reached with barely a full head-dip underground.
In the end I manage to negotiate the short tube ride with only slight dizziness, passing shots of nausea that threaten to grow but cannot as they are of the mind and not the body (which I keep telling myself so as to ward them off), and gratefully I surface at Paddington with all its nuts & bolts and steaming trains, not funnel-steaming but temper steaming, angrily they stand and chug and wait to be untethered and to fly across the open land, across the British land that is so perfect for trains (just imagine Turner's rainy trains, where else could they be but Britain), and take my place on the 1635 to Swansea that just cannot wait to roll down Brunel's great way.
Ah, there's still plenty of romance about trains, despite the loss of steam and shovels and the victory of cars and lorries…there they lie, all lined up and spewing their diesel or whatever fumes in their great Victorian hangars that thankfully have survived into our Age, gunning engines but suspiciously still serpents, ready to embark again on that Great Western Railway across the green breadth of the country (at the time of construction the Greatest Country on the Globe), exhaling like fighters before the fight, pulsing, pulsating, metal tubes of modern transport but still somehow stuck in the greatness of the Victorian era and even making me wistful for such times. And beautiful too these hangars – palaces of noble wrought iron that twists and supports, and glass long since opaqued by birds and fungal growths I suppose. They scream of foresight – still big enough are these Victorian metal monoliths to house the transport systems of our own overpopulated and rushing days.
1815 clacks onto the fake digital clackity clock and moments later the train slopes out of Paddington, through West London's flatblocks and alongside parks and churches and embankments as the city collapses into smaller nodules of civilisation and then thins out, thinner and thinner it is spread over the earth until football pitches and playgrounds give way to fields, and trees take over from houses…westwards we rush, soon playing with the Thames – jinking and jiving, narrowing its banks which become greener, cleansing its water which becomes clearer and blacker. Reading slides over the land, then slides back off…fields, trees, waving grass…the massive chimneys at Didcot make clouds in the wider sky…then the sky expands further as the green chalkscapes of Wiltshire smooth the horizon and snigger nervously underneath, grey scudding clouds far-off control the sky like an epic army scudding over a battle plain.
But everything I see today makes me sad: the Victorian effort gone into the chewing-gum marked platforms, the black stone of their endeavours, the hanging floral baskets of ours; the brown cloud-shadow on golden fields; the lushness and bright glow of green grass; poor old men in ancient blazers holding plastic bags, earnestly rounding-off life; railside graffiti; the train announcement that 'the buffet is now open' with its 'selection of snacks and beverages'; the new buildings of desperate modern Swindon; the business phone calls on the train and the man who is 'touching base' with Roger; the flying bushes and standing houses in little fenced plots and the dread that I may one day have a fenced plot of my own. Can I not just keep passing through, sad though it will be? Because despite the blue sky and green western fields the world is tirelessly sad.
And there are the little mini-diggers rusting in a weed-covered building project, which should be sad but strangely make me a little happy to see…although I have no idea why.
The world is more golden the further west we go, more golden and more green, as the sun dips lower towards its own western home and the more-rained-upon fields of the West Country groan with deep Amazon juiciness…health and wealth and a green melancholy that is sad today but has reserves of green joy to break out on other days.
I stand on the platform and wait for the train to leave; people struggle around me with their bags and a couple with bicycles which they have fetched from the guard’s carriage and now heave up the steps. Eventually the doors slam shut and the train pulls its weary body onwards – Bath and Bristol yet to come, then over the saline Severn and into Wales and the drear town of Newport before ticking off Cardiff and hitting the finality of Swansea and its sea. And at last, once there, the train will look behind it and see the darkening East and, still panting, shaking, shuddering, will begin to worry about the return journey. And for now the station at Chippenham is quiet: me listening to the sounds of a country-town station: the bang of bags on steps as a small boy drags his luggage carelessly, the seagulls massing on the roof of the great DIY warehouse beyond the car park cawing and car-cawing and settling, so that they look like seagully gargoyles or silhouetted statues of a long-forgotten age in which we worshipped ugly birds and appreciated swooping flight.
Tannoy-speak ruins the calm, bringing back other busier stations to mind, so I go and sit at the nearby bus stop and watch the Sunday evening world as I await my carriage.
The bus barely stops after leaving the centre of Chippenham and after fifteen minutes of undulations and brave swooshes round fast corners I must alight and walk the two miles along the one-track road to the cottage of my great aunt. It’s darkening, the sky, but taki&