An unfinished piece – I’ve been writing shorter lately… but I’ll try to finish this sometime…
I’ve lived in London since 2001, about then, so I’ve been here… a long time now. Yet I’ve never seen Buckingham Palace. I’ve wanted to, its not that I’ve felt it was too commercial, too touristy, or that I’m against the Royals, no, I’d love to take a look, but I just never make it there. I’ve seen it on postcards in those rotating racks outside the shops on Oxford Street, the sky is an unrecognisable blue in the background. I’ve seen it on a t-shirt stretched across the gut of a tourist (probably American) and it looked as if they’d built an extension. I try to go there sometimes, get my £110 in my account from the DHSS and buy a bus pass – all zones! That is such an exciting part of the day – take out a £10 note, pop into the off licence and buy a can or two, perhaps three and get some change so that I can insert two pound coins into the little red machines by the bus stops and get a small printed square that allows me freedom to roam the whole city until 4am. Anything is possible now.
I sit down on the red plastic bench in the bus stop, but the rain manages to get me still, its angle so obtuse. I have one of the cans quickly, a nice strong cider that warms against the cold. I wonder what time it is, so I try to get my phone out, but it has gone into the lining of my coat, through the hole in the left pocket. I put the can down, next to the blue plastic bag containing the others and I try to retrieve my phone. My right arm reaches inside my left pocket hole, and goes inside the lining, around my back, deep into the coat. This makes me look a little strange, as if I’m fighting off invisible parasites, reaching within myself and contorting, eyes askew and tongue out, fingers tentatively sorting through used tickets, lighters, torn fags and 1p coins until… Yes! My hand re-emerges triumphantly, I flip open the phone and – shit. No battery.
You find me in this state because I haven’t been home yet. I went out to a gig last night, The Fall. It was in Brixton, and, as I wanted to save some money, and as I didn’t have much else on, I decide to walk there. If Brixton is the bottom left quadrant of the city, mine is the bottom right. So it is doable in the hours I had spare. I walked past pavement cafes where whole slices of toasted sandwich were left, where bottles of beer still had a good gulp in them, where there was a tip that would last me a while… But no bottle had I, I felt the streets full of mercenary eyes, I couldn’t take these things, let the world see how far I had fallen. I mean, it was getting a little desperate. Yesterday morning I had woken at about 4am, stood up and found myself fully clothed, including big white Doc Marten boots. That saved some time. I trudged through the avalanche of the flat to the bathroom, and held the showerhead to my face and twisted the cold tap. The life-giving blast blew away the bleariness and I was ready. Sort of. There was still a rising panic in my chest, a wondering about what would happen that day, and I needed something to help me face it. The off licence. I threw aside the couch cushions, green and white striped and gropd about for coins down the back. Just a few, please, please… yes! A little gold one! Perfect. I clumped downstairs, step step step step step as fast as I could, braked my descent using my hand on the ceiling above the stair, slammed down onto the landing and leapt out the door, flicking it closed with my booted foot, just as I realise that I’ve left my keys upstairs. Click.
Oh well. Got other things to worry about now. Past the first shop. Closed. Second. Closed. The third is a Tesco, 24-hour, but would not serve booze this early, they do things by the book. Not me! I’ve discovered a different way of life, I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it. Feel low – have a drink. Of course, you are feeling low because you have had a drink, but all of life is a circle, our planet is a circle, and we whip through space in a constant infinite circle, so why shouldn’t my life be governed by a circle? Work sleep work sleep like I see the poor suited bastards doing, off each morning and back each night, travelling in the darkness in those packed and steamed up buses – that’s society’s approved circle, and I want no part of it. The angels tell me of a shop in Catford that will be open:
“David, there is a shop by the fire station that opens early! Go there! Go there!”
After about a 40 minute walk, through the misty fields of the park, over the fence of the graveyard, out the side with bent apart railings, down the sleeping terraces, a milkfloat hums by, and the city starts to wake, here in the main street pigeons fight over last nights takeaway chicken boxes before the council road sweeping machine hungrily swallows it up with its whirling brushy suckers and I look up to see the open shop. I go in.
I try to look awake and full of joy. No response from the guy behind the till. Does this place serve… oh thank God, there is the fridge. OK – what will we have? Nothing too crazy. Just a ltlle yellow can of Holsten Pils, so cold and calming and soothing. Pick it up. Go to the till. Place it on the counter. Avoid eye contact. Hand over pound. Come on, what’s happening? There is too much of a pause here.
“That’s 99p, ah, actually we can’t serve until seven, sorry.”
Dear God! No! Now he is judging me, looking upon my poor wretched soul, my nerves all on the outside of my body, frayed and failing, a stray dog in need of shelter and succour, now kicked again and sent on its way.
“Ha ha, oh yeah, of course! No worries – cheers boss! I’ll just pop that back.”
I try to plaster over the gaping crack that has appeared in my mind, my entire existence rent assunder, body dragging the lowest depths of Earth while soul, diminished and vainly flapping, tries its best to keep this life together for another day.
Seven! Oh interminable hours between dawn and opening time! How many grey hairs these have weaved into my head and the heads of my comrades! What tortures these have inflicted upon my people! Angels, what do I do now? But they were silent.
Of course, as the world continued to turn toward the sun, seven came along, my self was satiated and seven went away again, the ground continued to move as the world turned beneath my feet, and eight o’ clock and Brixton came to me. By this point I was in quite a state, and was seen by a bouncer downing a bottle of red wine. Lets stop there for a moment. Red wine you say? Where did I get that? Well, I had that Holsten at seven, not from that same shop, dear God no, I can never darken that doorway again, unless I find my way out of this circle and step proudly in there in search of Financial Times and sparking mineral water. No, I had that can, then I went to that grim and depressing Weatherspoons, one old man per table, a stench of bleach and rotting fermenting death, and a feeling of violence promised or just departed. I sat down in the toilet there for a while, just to be alone in a small wooden box for a while, try it out for size, when I saw a retch of phlegm the size of a dinner plate on the floor, like an expanded fried egg with green yolk surrounded by clear. Jesus Lord. This world is too terrible for me. How am I here? How am I cursed to walk among the dead like this? How is the person who heaved that substance from his body still alive?
“David! David! You have a reason to be here! You are doing right!”
Well, they sent me on my way via a large glass of white wine, in the window seat, back facing the grave. I headed out onto the ring road, and opened my phone and looked at it for five minutes, the beautiful name spelt out in LCD pixels: Beth. You see, the battery was still alive then, this being yesterday morning still, still. But it was too early to call her, and she wouldn’t tolerate me that early, or even in the afternoon sometimes, but I had bought her a ticket to the gig, and she was coming up to see me. To see me! And also the band. The price for these tickets had cleaned me out, hence the low living that you see exhibited before you, but you see my point, dear friends, you know why I do this, my fellows? So standing there on the ring road, cars and lorries and buses hammering by, me, swaying in the forces they throw out, alone with my Beth, in my hand. I stroke the smooth teal-coloured plastic (at least I think they call that teal) in my hand and gently close the lid, and slip it into the jacket pocket by my heart.
So where did I get the wine from? Well, after my reverie with Beth, I decided to get real and hit the offy for a miniature bottle of Glen’s (“The Exciting Vodka”) and then go and buy Beth a present. That would be what this hand carved wooden mushroom would be, but where I got it or what I drank next – who knows? To think that my body was out there, roaming under the flyovers and running across the dual carriageways, going into shops and keeping head down, or, worse, starting to speak to people and interact with the world was so worrying. Or maybe not: I lay in repose while my shell goes about its business, taking in the sights, spending a merry day in the streets, maybe looking for Buckingham Palace, never finding it, always returning to the same place, the bed with no sheets, where body and soul recombine in a sweating mess, scoured by the bobbles and crumbs of a spring-pinging mattress in the shafts of early-dawn light amongst the screech of birds at the curtainless window.
So now no one will ever know where I got this wine or this mushroom from, or how the purchases were made. Maybe these are like the mysteries of nature we should never know, and too much fiddling inside DNA, splitting open atoms and peering behind the nebulae will only lead to trouble. Like opening the back of a computer, we may void the warranty. The bouncer’s saying something, turning me around and pushing me forward towards the street. I feel like this has happened before, as in quite recently, but I can’t be sure so I go back to him to ask and check.
I see Mark E Smith come on stage, and the crowd goes wild, I leap up and find myself being helped up by hands all around. The crowd surges and I’m on my knees, I struggle up and look for someone to punch, but my arms are pinned by my sides. Beth is kissing a girl, so I free an arm and tap her on the shoulder, and some old gnome face turns round. The place goes blue and I’m looking the wrong way, and three plastic pints that sail into view burst all over me. I suck the juices from my tie to make sure it doesn’t stain, and see the emergency exit sign sail across the sky. Someone keeps opening the toilet door as I look for a pen to write some graffiti. There are pints on shelves and tables and barriers here. I grab a hand to my left and one to my right and hold them aloft – I look to their owners, both bald men with red faces, bellowing “And we all! Clasped! Hands!” and I feel like I belong here. The air conditioning unit is usually found on the outside of a building, so I go up to the bouncer to gain re-admittance.
I saw a bus come by with Clapton Pond written on it, so I jumped on. After being helped up, I slumped down in the seat and woke to the strobing of the interior florescent lights. I exit bus left, give a cheers sign to the mirror, and I’m here – Clapton Pond! I swirl my head left and right, but can’t see the pond, so I swing my leg over a low wall, and start making my way up a huge set of stone steps, a wooden and glass door at the top seemed important to get to. Exeunt.
If you have ever woken up in a cold stone doorway, you’ll know what terror my soul felt. The height I was at, on these steps, it felt like I would have to fall to Earth to re-enter human life. The mushroom was clasped to my chest, and my legs were curled beneath me, and my hand had been sacrificed to being a pillow, and it felt like there was a black hole where my warmth had been. There was infinite space where previously I had been. I right myself, then use my blue hands as props, haul myself skywards and tilt and sway against the gunmetal grey sky, grey building, grey air. Come on David – its not that bad. Go down. There’s a car. And look – there’s some old bloke scraping gum off the street its not so bad. You can go left, you can go right. You could even go straight ahead.
Anything is possible now. Yes – we are back at where we started, at the top of this story, where we first met. Dole day! Bus ticket purchase! Buckingham Palace! The thing about the palace is, whenever I try to go there, I end up at London Bridge Station, it feels like the city must slope that way, and no matter how many lefts and rights I make through the skyscrapers and terraces and shops I somehow gravitate to the grim 70s station, wracked with pigeons and fag smoke, like I’m a penny coin spinning towards the hole in one of those charity swirling boxes. And where do trains from that station go? Well, lots of places, mostly the grim suburbs near me, but also out to bleak coastal resorts that have faded badly, or commuter hell-holes, where those business people dwell before being drawn back to the city once more. But also the trains go to one other place. Brighton. Oh Brighton! Where the sea gently laps against the shore, making the stones sing as the gulls circle and the candyfloss whirls into clouds, held merrily aloft by children who skip along the promenade, flying and held up by the solar breeze that caresses in from the Gulf Stream, a beautiful cycle of currents of air, spun our way by the Coriolis Effect, adding soothing strands of warmth to our island, like the pink sugar that becomes the clouds of candyfloss.
But dear friends, that’s not what I go for. No, this is the place where Beth resides, her long flowing blonde hair all the way down her back, with crystal blue eyes and her little snub nose that traces quizzical circles in the air as you talk and thoughts spark in her mind and are answered and are never said. Ah, the unsaid and the undid! Ah, the endless years of longing! I see the bus, the Number 36 that heads into the centre of the city coming, and stand and start on my journey to the palace. But I know I’ll never make it there. So I reject that bus and turn to the Off Licence. I’ve finished the cans while we were talking, and I know I’ll need more before the day is through. I’m going to London Bridge. I’m going to Brighton. And I’m going to see Beth.
The company that runs the train to Brighton is called Thameslink. I was born in Luton, a place north of London, pretty run down, especially after the car factory closed, and I went to school in St Albans, a much nicer place, an old Roman city, a few stops nearer to London. So I must have sat on every seat in every carriage of all these trains by now, and I feel at home in them, more at home than most would with a roaring fire and Sunday roast, or, if that image of home no longer exists, more at home than staring at a plasma screen through a pint or glass of weak piss, as the ads have it for the epitome of British Leisure Time.
The train can be either four cars or eight cars. That’s carriages, to you, but those in the business call them cars. I guess that’s because you have to refer to them more if you work with them, and carriages is quite a long word, so just say cars to save time. I don’t want to sit near anyone, I like to have some time to think and look out at the countryside without hearing an inane one-sided conversation on a phone, so I sit in the front carriage. Car. You can tell where the train will pull up to on the platform because there is a little black square sign that says “4 Car Stop” or “8 Car Stop,” so once you know, from the announcements and screens how many cars your train will be, you can go and stand at the appropriate spot. There’s a little tip for you. Just keep it under your hat, we don’t want the General Public joining us there.
Of course, as the train comes in, me standing alone at the far end of the platform, the rest of the people realise, as they must do every day “Wow, this train is really long! Let’s go up there a bit, rather than all standing around the same 10 metres square bit of the platform.” Luckily, they don’t come us as far as me. When I get on, though, there are a few people in the carriage. They are all on their own:
One petite and plain faced girl, minimal look, blank face, pale and staring beyond the horizon.
One elderly black lady, looks to me, smiles, I feel myself smile back.
One bloke with shaved head, sees me through a reflection.
One old guy, walking stick beside him, quickly looks at me and looks away, expands with newspapers to fill the seats around him.
One business type, anxious, sits in centre seat and looks up and down aisle.
Rude boy, Adidas tracksuit, black bag of cans, stares at me and I wilt into my seat.
Well, that’s how I judged you at the start, maybe a little harshly, but as you know I’d been having a few hard days.
Anyway, I sit by the window, always, in a seat that faces forwards. You know, there are some tribes that have grammar opposite to us. We talk about “going forward” into the future, however they talk of going back. This is because they say that you can only really see the past, not the future, so it is like you are backing into it, the past laid behind you, where you came from. That makes sense to me, but I want to see where I will be going, because I don’t want to look back.
I got fired a couple of months ago, I was working on the flotation of BAE, and did that pretty well. Lots of people made lots of money. After that, I was just on general duties as the Stock Registrar. I would have stockholders calling me up, asking how their portfolios were performing, and getting a little warmth from the increases in value, and the human contact they had with my digitised and disinterested voice. One guy would call every day, and would make a joke, a very weak joke, usually the same one, all the time. I can’t remember it now. There was one time when someone called up and asked how their stocks in Pacific Media were doing. I looked this up on the computer, which, even though this isn’t that long ago, still had a green and black screen, and in that blocky text it said:
Holders of 10,000 shares or more will now hold one ordinary share for every 500 current non-voting shares.
Holders of below 10,000 shares now have a zero holding.
“You have a zero holding.”
“Ah, thanks son. How much is that worth? My life savings, you know, my nest egg, going on a cruise one-”
“You no longer hold shares in Pacific Media, due to a restructure.”
Now, the last time we were together, there were so many unsaids and undids. I’d like to undo and redo. I’d like to undo it all, and dear Lord, my mind fills with images, they cleave apart my skull and kill me with beauty.
And stroke somebody on the knee.
It is so good to know someone like you, to be allowed to know someone like you. A minute of time in your presence delights me, and I love to watch the orange blue halflight of dusk cast shadows on your hidden face, little smiles that flicker inside and come alight, and eyes that trace through space and time, sometimes looking into mine. Maybe you don’t know you – don’t know how that would be. It is an enchantment, and I need no more when in that moment. I am drawn in and I disappear.
I look out the window, and feel the heat of the radiator bathe my foot. Hear the hum of the fan as this machine gets hotter. I wonder where you are, and if you are looking at the sky too, and if you think of me.