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Unreal City. Engine sounds. Mechanical breath. Beeping doors: mechanical voice. Yellow light, bright. A man slumped beneath a heavy coat, wearing small round glasses, his head iceberging the folds of an upheld newspaper. But he is sleeping, not reading. In the windows of the carriage there are shadowy reflections, illuminated ghosts of the passengers at a slanted angle. The city worker watches his reflection in the dark perspex: is he the ghost or the passenger?
Now and then, low voices. A cough. A sneeze. His phone falls from his hands to the carriage floor. The two-tone knock mirrors the train’s wheel on a rail. It is a journey of staggering boredom, time melting into engine sound and into the small, rattling phone screen. The paling keen of the train through tunnels. Time is nervous: as long as the train sound is there, seconds and minutes are its prisoners, and they pass in their own lurching moments. It is seven o clock. Without warning, it is quarter past seven. And yet it seems like the city worker has only just now stirred to pick up his phone from the shuddering floor. The ghosts in the perspex continue to wait.
At a certain point then the window’s darkness is transformed into a moving picture of dim back yards, a labyrinth of awnings and tarpaulins heavy with water. And the high rises then too, and dark shimmering yellow streets and murky canals. Roundabouts, car parks, estates, Sainsbury’s Locals… Like foreign languages partly known, he can almost understand their rhythms. Streetlights and rooftops spread out into the distance; as the city spreads out into this massive sprawl he loses his grip on meaning. This view, this window, has become a kind of visual rambling, a scrapheap of ideas and images. The city is the mind of a mad raving lunatic, a relentless sob. Unreal City.
He slips off the train into the belly of the station and paces the platform towards the barriers. It is like a race for air. Beep beep. Unreal City. The breath now of traffic, and the punctuation of traffic lights, sounds of horns and motors and the hiss of roadwater swept along. He hears from the radio of a news vendor on the street that a lorry has overturned on the A2 at Blackheath, spilling tons upon tons of gravel over the road.
BUT WHO IS THAT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF YOU
Dusk opens the chasm of night and the darkness grows from grassy ground shadows. Car and lorry lights bleed in squinted vision, in a long bright river of light that cuts through the dimming expanses of heath. Sounds of horns and motors. Roads are referred to as arteries, like some vast body exists. I think of them as rivers glistening. Darkening church steeple rises into vast turquoise, the sky scarred by planes, their whale song playing off the breath of traffic on the hill, approaching the roundabout. In the van on the way to training, Mick Rogers has been singing along to Big Tom, but pauses to tell me that, in the Seventies, he used to come here to help the circus workers take the Big Top down. They’d be in a rush to move on to the next place and so they’d pay men cash to fall in and help. An idea for a speech comes to me, about belonging, about the lack of a parish but the presence of something else. About transcience. But Big Tom is filling the air again, and Mick is swearing at a cyclist who has cut along the inside. The windows are steaming up something savage; I am forever thinking of dressing-room speeches that will never be given. I perambulate the city, composing sentences to be delivered to stuffy, crowded dressing rooms.
‘How many do you think will be up tonight?’ Mick asks. To the cyclist: ‘Will you ever fuck off out of my way?’
WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL ROOT? CONSTANT DOCUMENTATION
Ian Guthrie thinks of Frankenstein, as he slowly edges onto the roundabout, no longer fears the wide lean of the London bus as it comes round too fast. He has heard that Justin Lake—his own personal hero in the teaching game—finally lost his head in just such traffic. That he waited too long for a red light to change and, pulling an umbrella from the passenger seat, got out to smash up his own front windscreen. Guthrie remembers stopping a fight in the classroom once, two Year 9s. When he put his forearm out to hold one boy back, he felt the fourteen-year-old heart pounding so fast beneath the white shirt.
A space is cleared in the wake of the bus and Guthrie nips into it, jeered then by a chorus of beeping. He is tired; the night will pass like a yawn. He curses the cyclist, who thrusts out a luminous yellow arm and veers in front of him.
Guthrie stirred his coffee once, continually, for thirty-five minutes. He does not remember what he thought about.
OVERHEARD IN LONDON
Two minks snarl at each other over the bottle universe of a model ship. Paint peels from the bulb-bathed walls.
‘I admit that I am sometimes hypnotised by the patterns of the Tube upholstery. Whole minutes pass…’
‘You are not invited into homes here.’
‘No: you only get to meet people in cafés… restaurants… pubs. The public domain. It’s so… impersonal.’
‘I miss the kitchens of others.’
‘Aye, but it’s the people that make it.’
‘Ahyeah: it is of course. Another of those warm, wet things?’
Jug Jug Jug.
‘The drivers here are fucking terrible.’
‘They are: they indicate as they turn, not before.’
‘I left home in search of my ‘bush’ soul.’
‘Look what you found.’
‘Cafés in churches.’
‘Have I become such a negative person?’
‘You are tired and bored.’
‘Do you hear the sirens? Even now they burst in upon me!’
CULLING IS A CON!
In a Wetherspoon’s pub, the woman of middle age has ordered a bowl of chips to go with her pint of Shipyards. In her seat beneath a roadside window, she leans forward, her black trouser suit and white blouse hanging loose, like old skin, her black leather handbag placed neatly on the table in front of her. She could have come from work in a bookies, or a city office. Her hair is unbrushed, wind-wild; she places her hands palmdown on her thighs, crosses her ankles beneath the creaky wooden chair. Table 25 is a dark wooden plane of spilled salt and dried ketchup.
Mostly, she hears without interest the matter-of-fact confidences of men, in twos, estimating and counting and dividing the quantities of things. The thirst for knowledge has left an overabundance of… everything. Unshaven, they tally their change. Jug Jug Jug. Twit Twit Twit. No music plays over them, so that the conversations must combine to make their own jilted rhythms, supported only by the sporadic bleepfall music of a till, or a fruit machine. Her eye passes over the corduroyed men, and over the hungover students, who pull at their clothes and their haircuts, or tuck their hands between pursed thighs, and she settles eventually for the rolling subtitled news footage of a satellite channel, playing high up in the corner of the pub wall. The HGV lorry has been responsible for the deaths of nine London cyclists already this year. She imagines their ghosts cruising the city at night, forever bound to London’s myriad itineraries, London’s labyrinthine maps, wheels spinning with eternal purpose, ghost-legs tirelessly pumping, working the brakes, leaning into pock-marked street corners…
When a bowl of oildamp, steam-giving, thick-cut chips arrives and an eastern accent offers yourerder she slowly and carefully draws from her black leather purse a large jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise, three-quarters full, her wrists and ringless fingers firmly poised, already forming the practised grip. The window above her faintly rattles. Her mind allows a half-formed thought to pass.
STAND BACK TRAIN APPROACHING!
Derek and Kathy walk down the steps at London Bridge onto the marble-tiled promenade, and with cold wind cutting across their chests they hop the thick black chain and descend seaweed-polished steps to the brownstreaked shore of the Thames. The barges lie low on cold, concrete water, as the wind carries dirty breakers in toward the two walking.
‘He never lets me alone,’ Derek says as he feels out for her hand.
‘Talk to him.’
‘Always at my fucking shoulder… He’s a control freak.’
Across the water, innumerous office lights blink on and off in the square-mirrored palaces of the shoreline. On-the-clock cleaners are held within the tiny lights, bent over, traversing cable-strewn carpet tiles in sweeping arcs. As it darkens, these lights begin to draw their nightly path across the water, meeting the two shadows that reach for the water.
‘My back hurts. I can’t even sneeze.’
The swells of the Clipper racing west usher in rushed sighs and Derek’s frustration is captured. The squat barges give the illusion of drift.
The giddiness of foreign languages passes above the couple, on the promenade, faces and bodies neither of them can see. His eye falling closer to the shoreline, where Kathy is making statements about the cranes on the horizon, Derek spots it first.
‘Look,’ he says, breaking away to point at something washed nearly all the
way up to the wall, on its side and stiff against the nudge of his suede ankle boot. Pink, like a latex-covered car part, it glows up at them from the sand.
‘A dildo,’ he exclaims.
‘A Rampant Rabbit,’ she corrects.
‘I bet,’ says Derek, ‘that some girl cast it out after she finally got engaged.’
‘Or some jealous bloke chucked it out over the balcony when he found it in the bottom on the knicker drawer.’
Derek looks at her suddenly. ‘Have you got one?’
She laughs. Behind their backs, the Thames licks its way towards them, sweating oil and tar and dreary silt. Above, the ivy-dressed balconies of the wharf’s boutique riverside apartments loom, as if trying to test their value with the leaden river, asking, Who is the fairest of them all?
Cool wind ruffles the backs of the couple as they prospect further about the pink object. The sturdier heft of the buses on London Bridge rises over the shush of the breaking waves. Only when Derek and Kathy have sufficiently told the possible varied histories of the Rampant Rabbit do they feel able to leave it there, to be collected again by the river and swallowed up, and already then they are rehearsing beneath the realms of their eveningtalk how they will play this one out in the Marquis on Friday night, before the long-practised and expectant grins of the other couples they know.
WHAT SHALL I DO NOW? WHAT SHALL WE DO TOMORROW?
The single span arch roof of St. Pancras Station contains the leaden grey sky. From the bleachcleaned platforms below, the tired shifting of trains drifts up into the vast iron and glass vault of it, that sound mingling with the footfall of passengers and the distant strains of a hidden quartet. Sterile announcements punctuate Rachel’s thoughts as a group of teenagers with yellow backpacks rush for the Eurostar.
There will be Bolivian rugs again, and incense smells, and no longer the sticky laminate floors, or the random discovery of cigarette butts or bottle caps. Her mother used to bring her cups of tea in bed. Will she do so again? During my studies I have grown as a person. I am available immediately. Behind the freestanding glass elevator a dreadlocked man pulls faded trousers up at the thighs and sits to play the piano. His overture lifts past the iron framework, past the gridwork cables and exposed vents, to join the ghostly confusion of the grandiose vault arch. Last exam today! Won’t know what to do with myself! All these words and sounds will be ghosts one day, floating in the ether like dust, with nowhere to go, and the buildings will dream of us, the memory of us.
Rachel walks along the concourse of shops, all behind plate glass. Others stroll, others hurry, from concrete baluster to concrete baluster, as she looks for presents to buy for the family. A Paddington Bear? Books? It has not been very long since she saw them last, but this feels significant.
This was all a beer cellar once—she knows from coursework—but now as she passes under the redbrick arches of the undercroft, the floor spotlights creating spooky triangular shadows, it is an arcade that signifies the city: Costa; WHSmith; Eat; Boots; M&S; and so on towards Calgary or Purgatory. Perhaps that is it: each of them here, each of the throng has died in this city, and St. Pancras is the halfway house. Down here, on the concourse with the shopping pigeons, on the platforms, you are waiting to have your details processed and your ticket number called. And up there, through the huge iron ribs and glass arch of the great greenhouse, is the grey leaden face of God. The Chrome Unknown. So scary to be finished in Uni. Go easy on me world! She counts the flattened chewing gum in pale mosaic tiles. She has always been early for trains.
WHAT BRANCHES GROW OUT OF THIS STONY RUBBISH?
One. One. Three. One. Three…
You are third in the queue…
You are second in the queue…
You are first in the queue…
Hello, I’d like to set up a direct debit to pay my credit card bill each month.
Hello—welcome to Barclay’s Telephone Banking. Can I take your name, please?
Yes, my name is Danny Denton. I’d like to set up a direct debit.
Hello, Mr Denton. How can I help you today?
Yes, I’d like to set up a direct debit.
Sorry, the cafe is closing in fifteen minutes, sir, and the toilet is now closed for cleaning.
But you are the only member of staff here, and you’re cleaning the coffee machine, not the toilet. Can’t I just use the toilet quickly?
Mr Denton, before I can help you, I need to ask you some security questions. Can you confirm your postcode?
Thank you. Can you confirm your date of birth?
Fifth of the Fourth, Eighty-Three.
Thank you. Can you confirm the third digit of your passcode?
Hang on a second. You’re telling me that even though the toilet is empty, and you’re not cleaning it, it is still closed for cleaning?
Yes, I’ve dropped my phone and the screen has smashed, and I need to claim on my insurance policy, and I’ve been told that I need to order the forms from you.
Yes, sir. As I’ve explained, the toilet closes at quarter to five, pm.
Even though I’ve been here all day, drinking coffee you served me and that I paid for?
So I need to order the form from you, and I can’t do it online. And then I fill the form out and send it to you. Then you send me another form if you think I have a valid claim, and I complete that form, and send you the phone with that form, and then you decide if my claim is successful?
Thank you, Mr Denton. One last question…
Can I use the toilet if I promise to be back out before you have even finished cleaning the coffee machine, and if I also promise to make zero mess?
What is your mother’s maiden name?
How long would I be without my phone?
Can I just use the fucking toilet please!
I am afraid I cannot confirm that, Mr Denton, as we would need all forms completed and also have to carry out a technical investigation. We do endeavour to return all items as soon as possible.
Your aggression is not appreciated or warranted, sir.
Thank you, Mr Denton. What can I do for you today?
I’d like to set up a direct debit, to pay my credit card bill.
Okay Mr Denton, I am going to put you on hold so that I can transfer you to the correct department for setting up a direct debit.
Can you see the madness in the fact that I’ve been sitting here, under that window over there, all day, drinking coffee that you served me and which I paid for. Now that I need to urinate that coffee out of my system, you will not allow me to, even though you have a perfectly functioning and unoccupied toilet beyond that partition wall?
Drip. Drop. Drop. Drop. Drip. Drip.
THIS AREA IS MONITORED BY 24-HOUR CCTV SURVEILLANCE
Endless rows of terraced houses with bay windows, protected by four-foot brick walls. The roots of cherry blossoms crack the pavements so that they roll like waves, blistering the tarmacadam that has filled whole purgatorial A&E wards with sprained ankles, on late fluorescent nights at Lewisham Hospital, with injured offenders handcuffed to benches, their wrists twisted as they try to sleep off the drink and police officers swipe their phones with fatigued fingers. Residents leave out the things they don’t want anymore: flimsy wardrobes, crumpled shoes, dusty video cassette collections. Elastic bands and other litter are strewn all over the pavement. The smell of marijuana eases from a cracked open yet curtainguarded window, or perhaps the adjacent cobbled alleyway. The city worker limps by, away home with his sausages and eggs in a blue plastic bag, the Daily Mail tucked into a damp armpit. On the other side of the road, screened by parked cars, a wheelie suitcase gathers momentum. Every thirty or so seconds another planes soars overhead, filling the sky with its scraping song. A straight-backed cyclist cruises by the city worker, whistling, avoiding the speed bumps. When he crests the hill, panting slightly, he will take in with awe the view of the city buildings, vague, lightless, dim glassy, clustered too close together beyond the blue haze of the bright morning’s smog. A siren suddenly comes wailing down the street, materialising from nowhere and, as always, disappearing to nowhere again, the call of the banshees his father feared once cancer came.
His flat is dim, always, with the huge acanthus outside the window blocking the spring light that comes in low over the terraced houses. Under the window, a clothes horse dank with wet trousers and shirts. On the corner television he half-watches a show about a Scarborough steeplejack felling industrial chimney stacks, the screen filled with smoke and side streets and market places and city rooftops. But the city worker’s eye is drawn then to the window, as snow begins to drift across beyond the venetian framed panes, flecking the acanthus all with white. Then he realises it is not snow, but the drifting flowers of the street’s cherry blossoms.
MIND THE GAP
‘Say it. Lo-wer Glan-mire Road. It’s like a song.’
‘Low-er Glan-mire Road. It is!’
IF ONLY THERE WERE WATER
It makes a sound, the city. Granted we were stoned but from the top of the reservoir, looking out over the orange haze of a hundred thousand buildings, you could hear that sound. A kind of stirring, a festering, inhaling and exhaling at the same time. Hear now the whale song of aeroplanes, beeps, vibrations, the steady murmur of pubs, restaurants, the electric whir of sockets and appliances, the steady, ever-breaking wave of air-conditioning, a million overheard conversations, the intoning of engines and vents: an eternal drone… Up on the reservoir, all these voices came to us, and they were part of the machine, and the machine was traffic heard from a distance, an old coach engine on the road at night, when you are half-asleep and the way is straight and the speed is fixed, a tumble dryer rolling incessantly in another room…
FURNISHED TWO BED FLAT TO LET
‘Got banned from driving after an in-cee-dent in Oz. Wrapped her round a pole and woke up in a bush.’
‘Bean garda came. Took me to the station. Took the license off me and I never got it back.’
Hands are swollen. He challenged someone to an arm wrestle not ten minutes ago, a big Russian-looking buck in a tight T-shirt. I cannot bring myself to trust a man who does not take his coat off in a pub. We’ve been drinking since we got on the tube at South Ruislip, but he materialised somewhere between Greenwich and New Cross.
‘Why weren’t you at the game today?’
‘Oh. Where were you at it?’
‘Stansted there. Clocked off early. Big staff party for finishing the stage. Nine pints I had before we left the site.’
‘And how did you get from Stansted to here? Airport bus?’
‘Nine pints and you drove? Sweeney, you fucking lunatic! Are you insane?’
‘Woh. Woh. Hang on. Cool your jets. Why is it that people think a man can’t drive when he’s drunk? If I have the capability to drive when I’m sober, do I suddenly forget how when I’m drunk? Do I forget how to talk when I’m drunk? Do I forget how to walk when I’m drunk?’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘But your capacity for doing so is massively hindered. You stagger, you don’t walk. You slur. Your driving goes to shit… Think, man! What if you killed a young family driving back from Stansted this night?’
‘Maybe I did.’
‘Maybe you… What?’
‘Come on now. How would I do that?’
Leans in close, confides: ‘Listen to me. Listen to this. A fella on the site told me today that on the council estate where he lives, out beyond Stokey that is, that there’s this woman there who was pregnant for ages.’
‘Well, for nine months I suppose. As you do. But when her time came she gave birth, not to a baby, but to three little white rabbits. Rabbits!’
Looks earnestly. Believes.
‘Rabbits, listen. She was Chinese, he said. Do you think something like that could be the truth?’
LOSS IN TRANSIT IS A PART OF LIFE
Realising that his feet could not touch the ground in Ireland, and with the wave that carried him from Tír na nóg broken, Óisín had little choice but to ride his horse to Rosslare and take the ferry, like so many Irish women and men before him, to England.
Safe to disembark as he was at sea again, he left his tireless white steed Embarr in the steel-echo car hold, alongside Avensises, Volkwagens, Scania trucks, caravans and Harleys, where, when her water was gone, she lapped an enormous fleshy tongue against a small pool of leaked engine oil. She began then to shudder with the engines and the dark waves beyond the painted hull.
Three floors up, Óisín paid silver and paper for a pint of porter and a plate of pie and potatoes, and stalked across a cafe of motionless bodies. It was gloomy. He settled on an upholstered bench beneath a window with blackened sea view, and rested his plate on his knees. Guttural snores held themselves against the steady motors of the vessel, smell of socks and soft farts and jeans never washed. Some strange spell, he decided, drawing from his pint and wiping foam from his lip. Sitting up straight he watched them sleepwalk to the toilets and back, turning then from side to side as they tried to settle back into sleep, waking again to configure playlists on smartphones, pulling their hoods over their eyes. Eventually, his youthful eye settled on the bottom of a girl, curled across two seats with her back to him and a sliver of pale blue knickers showing.
‘Fair maiden,’ he whispered, lifting one great buttock to release a silent fart himself, the gas of ages, the breath of eternal youth.
As dawn broke on the Irish Sea they began to stir. Óisín was brought back from his recollection of epics, as they began to gather their things quietly; they made their toilet alongside each other, splashing their faces with cold water and rubbing baby wipes into their armpits. Instead of travellers, the disembodied announcements referred to passengers. Many journeyed without passports, or with pets, or with criminal records in the print of their worn thumbs. They were armed with smartphones and backpacks, or great chests of suitcases that went only reluctantly. These people carried their whole lives with them, Óisín realised, struggling with the zips of the heavy bags that would contain them.
At the bar, the only men who would drink with Óisín told him that the Irish had fucking built the place; that the place was three-quarters Irish for all the Irish blood, bone, sweat, tear, straining muscle and broken heart that went into the building of that country and the being away from home sweet home.
‘Tis our song it sings beneath the sirens,’ one of them mourned, gulping.
‘What about the other quarter?’ Óisín asked. Without socks between his feet and his brogues, and with a woolly jumper and a floppy blond fringe, he looked like any other of the emigrating hipsters travelling to the land of hipsters.
‘A mixture,’ came the answer. ‘None of it clean.’
When Óisín returned to his faithful steed Embarr he found that she had transformed into a dirty white HiAce with a rusty undercarriage, two thirds of a tank of diesel, and a back which contained a single mattress and a few second-hand tools. Some smartarse with a vandalising finger had written the words ‘CLEAN ME’ into the grime of the back sliding door. Sighing, Óisín climbed into the HiAce and started her on the third go.
The journey passed in ancient song, but as he approached distant London, the youthful warrior was confused by a great bland data smog. Everything was vague, vaguer than ever before.
It was at Watford Gap he stopped first, on the M1, bursting for the toilet. But the moment his feet touched the ground, didn’t three-quarters of him suddenly age three thousand and a bit years, and disintegrate in the forecourt of the garage. The quarter that remained included a thick, muscle-strangled left arm, the neck and left sleeve of a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt, and a blond young head that didn’t look too surprised, that would have been easily mistaken for any one of the trendy young hipster faces swanning around Shoreditch at that time. The same blond hair was ruffled by the slipstream of the cars that zipped by on the forecourt, all in a hurry to fill up and move on, and when a part-time, zero-hour contract employee found the remains a half hour later, a Coronas song was still playing from the cabin stereo of the white HiAce.
SHE IS BORED AND TIRED
The local talks about bus routes like they are old myths and legends. ‘The 54 used to go by the shopping centre in Bexleyheath once. Now it goes straight to the terminus…’
He worked in theatre once; now he awakens in bus depots in the furthest reaches of the night, his phone escaped him, his wallet open on the seat and empty of cash, his wife not even stirring in her slumber. No friendly Caribbean bus driver to put an arm around him or give him a hot cup of tea to set him off, only condensation on the dark baubled windows obscuring the lonely depot lights, the empty buses, and foxes frightened out of ground-licking when he hits the emergency door release and stumbles out into the cold, his stupid hand repeatedly going for a phone that isn’t there and a wallet that cannot help him. It is approaching dawn. Twit twit twit.
FOLLOW US ON TWITTER
‘In the city, words are threats.’
‘Say something constructive.’
‘The city remains intact.’
‘The city is a great steaming mess of perspex and tar, an unfinished encyclopaedia of road signs, bricks, warnings and worn soles.’
‘The city is breath… the breath of the bus driver out the window as he curses the cyclist… the breath of the cyclist pulling back… the breath of the fat, tumourous pigeon trying to take off… the breath of six secondary students dividing twelve-packs of doughnuts outside Poundland so that they can sell them on in school…’
‘The city is lived, measured and experienced differently by eight million different souls, each processing their surroundings and composing a unique stream of consciousness. So, as such, it is eight million cities.’
‘Fuck that! The city is a machine. This enormous, complex, intricate machine, all oil and tar and smoke and dirty water. Do you feel part of the machine? Do you recognise that all your efforts, all your entertainments, your digestions, are all just part of the machine’s movement, as it burrows tick-like deeper and deeper into the earth? You have long ago abandoned yourself to its rhythms…’
‘The city is not a machine! It is a process in time, a simple action, an accumulation of seconds and minutes. You know, first, before cities, there was agricultural time, when people measured their lives via the seasons. You slept more in winter, rose earlier in summer, with the sun. You rested when there wasn’t work to be done. Then cities. Then industries. Then people working in shifts to a new kind of time. Industrial time. They start at nine, finish at six. London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down. Lives are suddenly clockwork patterns. A great crowd swells. There are rush hours; there is leisure time. TV comes along, inhales that leisure time. Weekends are discovered, like fossils that had always been there. Sport becomes regulated. The Internet. All of a sudden we’re carrying the lives of others around in our pockets on little battery-powered devices. Every spare minute—whether you’re on the toilet or in the queue for a sandwich at Pret—you are on your smartphone, being entertained, and every minute of the day you know what time it is. This city is that time, and you are just something that ticks inside it, along with all the other beeps and clicks and whirs.’
‘Well, let me show you a place fable has not dreamt of, nor sun nor moon scattered. Who will follow me to the ends of red brick and grey brick? Who will read the legends of the graffiti to me? Let’s trace our hands roughly on the bright colours, forged in the early hours by foxes in hoods…’
‘… is the breath of two West Indian students dragging their feet to the DLR station… is the breath of the market trader calling, ‘POUND-A-BOWL!’… is the breath of morning church shufflers finishing their cigarettes and making sure that when flung they land on the other side of the church wall… is the breath of five-a-side footballers on a freezing February night, under floodlights, on astroturf… is the breath of the homeless girl, the kebab shop worker, the five million weeknight drinkers of the greater metropolitan area, the trainline workers, strolling the tracks, their boots grinding the hardcore, making a harder sound than snow, as the late night turns over… is the breath of maybe ten million sleepers heaving out and up over train lines and rooftops to form a kind of supernatural glow, a glue that keeps that city intact, keeps it from collapsing into a trillion confused fragments…’
‘Nobody in London’s head is on straight; everybody’s head tilts a certain way.’
‘But there’s this notion… that we pre-date the city, that we’ll outlive it. You feel it, walking in the map, amongst it all, noting the ancient monuments and the historical streetnames. It’s a kind of sense… But we won’t outlive cities. Of course not. The city is an illusion of some eternal story.’
‘I see crowds of people walking around in a ring.’
WHAT SHALL WE EVER DO?
‘I can’t help but notice you admiring the brickwork,’ says a voice close by.
A soft face, grey hair combed. Blue EMR vest over puffed standard-issue EMR jacket. Armed with long-handled pan, short-handled brush.
‘I did a project on the construction of St. Pancras last year.’
‘Ah, then you’re noting the arches built in all along there.’
Not knowing what to say, she smiles. I want to practise architecture in the city that is at the forefront… This city is a labyrinth of architectural wonders; I am inspired by each and every building that I walk past. I am reliable. I am trustworthy. I am creative. I am adaptable. In ten years I want to be running my own practise. I feel I can bring great energy to the role. I am available immediately…
He points through the roof. ‘Witness the golgotha of cranes.’
She pulls out the right headphone. ‘Sorry?’
‘This is the world’s only neo-gothic train shed,’ he repeats.
‘Ah. An inspiring workplace.’
‘You said it. I’ll never retire.’ The elbow blow he gives her is softened by the padding of his jacket. ‘Not that I can afford to anyway. This effing government, ay?’
He clears his nostrils into his throat and swallows. ‘Worked here since I was fourteen.’
‘Remember when this beautiful glass roof was covered with bloody Welsh slate. On account of the bombs.’
‘I helped clear the rubble from platforms three and four when the bombs fell through that time.’
‘Remember choking on the brick dust. The smell of it… And overturned carriages and splintered wood all round. Even the rats were scared that time.’
‘I smell coffee and paper now… Why is there no graffiti here?’
‘Takes a fleet of twelve men to prevent that sin… Where are you headed?’
‘Safe journey then.’
Forged from the minerals of the Erewash Valley, the station is a triumph of verticality and light. Please find attached my curriculum vitae in application for the post. The famous DENT clock-face with its gold leaf rim surveys the cacophony of wheelies and trains, the endless platform, the kissing of fifty-foot lovers. I am ready to take the next step in my career. Should you require anything further from me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
When it is time to depart, she walks the long platform. In the vast vault of the station her worries no longer feel merited. There will be jobs. Breath fogs on the cold air. The rattle of wheelie cases mimics the rumble of trains on the cold steel tracks. Human life is like one of those Russian dolls. This is a place of echoes. I had not thought so many had died. The coffee stands and chocolate stands are left behind; there is the hiss of passenger doors. There is minding the gap, and mice scurrying below. Engines siphon, roll, warm. The chrome monolith advertisements are gone now too. Bags are pressed into shiny overhead shelves. Back the way she has come, a multitude of heads arching up towards departure boards. She feels the bombs coming. I am available immediately. Cranes peer in through the arch glass above all. What is all this commotion?
CYCLISTS BEWARE. THIS VEHICLE STOPS REGULARLY.
Sweeney’s Hophead has a red heart, glowing, flickering. The wall’s plaster swells in layers that look like magnolia bread slices; wall and ceiling are grotesque with this plaster finish, decades old. A cityscape of board game boxes hangs in the balance on a table in the corner, overseen by a stuffed peregrine falcon in a glass case, a model of a golden sailed Chinese schooner, and a tall vase of plastic green leaves. Sweeney has been paid and clocked out early. His time now is his own again to waste. The whole crew are on their way.
He never goes long without thinking of that Chinese woman, on the estate. His washed and cut fingernails test themselves on his forearms, leaving pale skindusty trails like planes on a clear sky. Light comes from the red candle glass on his glossy table, from a cast-iron, star-shaped light fixing, from the ship’s lamps that hang every ten or so feet as far as the counter. Two giant, gold-plated, white-painted masquerade faces grin down at him from the mantelpiece. The coat hooks are faun hooves; the faun’s head sticks out from above the mirror. The Montague is, famously, the last stop before Paris. The place was closed for a while, but it is back with a bang now.
‘We’re en route,’ comes the Whatsapp response.
It is a city of endless routes, he has often said. Whole lives are lost in the planning of a tube journey. He told a girl: he told her, ‘Fourteen African children have died of starvation in the time it took you to decide whether to take the Northern line or the Jubilee on your odyssey to Tottenham Court Road.‘ Afrobeat follows grunge follows a metal classic that Sweeney remembers from outside his brother’s closed bedroom door, way back in time. A warped red glow runs across the tall brass containers against the wall beneath the window; Sweeney eveningdreams of churns, milk factories, pasteurisation. Jive music now, beats itself against exposed pipes and vents, and glossypolished wood panels. Someone behind the bar is calling over a bad line something like, ‘I swear dead boatmen are haunting the docks.’
Where the fuck are they? On the 54? The 171? Old framed pictures depict garish landscapes dominated by uniformed generals with waxed moustaches, under autumn skies, shadowed by pale women with red lips. They point, or plant their hands on their hips. They fucked the Nazis right good alright, but didn’t the Germans win in the end…
‘Anyone for the Blythe,’ comes the suggestion.
They’re on the 53; they’re rubbing the windows with their jacket sleeves right now, watching out for their stop. He can see them, in his mind’s eye, noting the locations of bookies, taxi ranks and chicken shops. Ogling women. They say number 127 on that road is a sex cinema. You have to look for the Western Union sign. It is blackened by grime. These streets would choke you; he has often told them this. Where are they?
Goodnight, sweet ladies! Goodnight! That jive music has haunted him all the way from the Montague. He decided not to make for Dover or Paris, but is trickling back now through the crowded bus stops of the New Cross Road. The plaster of his mind peels. He wrote ‘Fuk U’ on the chalks board outside. Anthony might be in the Marquis. Or Mattie. He had to get out—it felt like those pancake bread walls were collapsing in on him. He nearly took the electric heater and the falcon with him but he was stopped at the door. Where are ye boys? Where are ye boys? His battery is dead. The weekend is almost over.
LITTER CAUSES DELAYS
The cyclist cruises down the brokenglasstarmac of the Ilderton Road, location of at least ten punctures over the few years he has cycled it, and is overtaken by streptococcal lorries. In the diminishing light the traffic lights pulse and he presses the brakes gently to bring him into the cyclist’s zone. In the city you grow used to waiting. You die slowly and patiently. As the green man disappears a rasta begins to cross, pulling his tracksuit bottoms up around his belly as he shuffles on. On his tours the cyclist has freewheeled over broken glass, past vast mounds of rubble behind rusty fences, and hills of rubbish for sorting in container yards by men with high-viz vests and doctor’s gloves. He has encountered whole monopolies of storage unit and warehouse, behind locked gate, facing onto murky canals, and fleets of shiny white vans parked uniformly in industrial yards. Each gate, each road and lane and warehouse contains a mystery, a secret history. From atop reservoirs he has surveyed the whole city, its myriad eyes blinking, and he has lost himself in the supernova of it.
The light beats orange and he eases a blackgloved hand out to the right. At green he is already gone, turning and dipping beneath the overpass. The chrome sky is blocked out a moment, and then he is passing along railway arches and down into Bermondsey and closer to the river and the city. His feet will not touch the ground again until Moorgate.
He avoids the chunks of broken concrete on the quieter back roads, and slows to take the savagery out of the speed bumps. Hooded figures haunt the estates. The cyclist is wary of clear plastic sheeting that has gotten caught on wasteland shrubs. Every built thing has the human mark of spray paint. That, he thinks, is how we can be sure we exist. This all started with a red powdery hand on a cave wall in France, ten thousand years ago.
Follow with your mind’s eye the city worker—the passenger—skipping down the tile steps of the underground at St. Paul’s. He leaves the great, snow-powdered dome behind him and hurries down one side of the staircase, his mac rippling around him, TfL posters warning him to tread carefully as he hurries, pacing to the barriers, slipping his Oyster card from his pocket gracefully, slipping in ahead of a woman who fumbles with her purse, striding with impatient confidence into the automated embrace of the ticket barrier, slapping his card down, inhaling the singular and positive green beep of it—driving across his synapses a Pavlovian thrill of muscle-remembered pleasure, of social acceptance—his body already knowing the split second it takes to register the green beep, during which he has slowed, then moved on, is gone, is a ghost in the silver polish of the walls, the post casings, as a straight-line trajectory in the dead colourless eye of the CCTV feed, the time marked as 17 34 07 and counting, ceaselessly counting amidst the disembodied informational voices of the ticket halls and tunnels, and the passenger—the city worker—already arriving at the top of the downward escalator, at the forefront of a competitive pedoton of other commuters, some rushing simply to stand still on the razor-blade steps of the escalator, but he is descending, with no time—NO TIME!—to wait, instead squeezing by those who cling to the right, whose kitbags and handbags are jutting out, saying to their backs, ‘EXCUSE ME,’ as they gaze into windows of advertisement, moving image… Be a Well Man… Be a Well Woman… Treat all staff with respect… but our passenger has ingested these particular realities so many times that they rattle around his head without him even looking for them, and he is already stepping neatly from the escalator step as it flattens, returns underground, one polished black shoe outstretched, onto the buffed tiles down there, away from all natural light, and he paces then through a series of tunnels, hurtling deeper and deeper into the polish and grime underworld of the Tube, where a great crowd swells.
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING ZONE ZERO
Emerging suddenly at Tower Bridge, from between office blocks and greenblueglassy hotels, the cyclist is taken aback by the thousands of palpitating smartphones of the tourists along the city bridges. He crosses at Tower Bridge as it impresses itself upon the evening, the westward sky paling blue to peach, sunglow falling and spreading and fading in a dome beyond city towers of dark glass. Streetlamps follow the riverside paths like fairy lights and the lights of city offices twinkle and twitch like the readings of some immense pulsating switchboard. Just Westward, the Shard is a dark tower, a lord overlooking all, its glowing tip a beacon to the nightland, or perhaps some alien code. Two bronzed bomber-jacketed teenagers are taking selfies, manoeuvring their bodies to take in the sights of the city. He remembers so little about his own teenage years; it is as if the terabytes of sensory and informational data and the hundreds of pints he has consumed in the city since his longpast arrival have overwritten them.
From Tower Bridge to Bishopsgate he takes the medieval lanes that curve through old stone buildings, emerging now and then into the glare of phallic, extraterrestrial towers. Staring forms lean out from doorways. At one point he sees a group of dishevelled men and women in long dark coats, gathered at the foot of a back entrance stairs, listening as they are spoken to by their leader, also in a long dark coat, orating from the landing on the first flight of the fire escape. He is saying something that sounds like, ‘The city is…‘ The cyclist knows of all manner of secret societies in the city, and was once a member himself of the London Rubble Association.
The Gherkin looms; the Heron Tower looms; their dark glass is protean, depthless. He could see immediately that the other man carried more weight than his profile pictures let on. He was older too, though that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But he was not his profile; he was another person. It felt important to note this. They staggered across the first few minutes of conversation, far-reaching vacuums of pubsound between each smileguarded sentence.
‘How long have you been in London?’
‘Don’t they say that if you make it five consecutive years you never want to live anywhere else?’
Another siren wails, overtakes him. It is a city of banshees. On Pitfield Street he sees a blond curly-haired woman weeping, bulging brown satchel swinging from her shoulder as she heaves tears onto the cracked pavement. Red brake lights throb, reflect in the sweatsheen of his forehead. They say all the trees in this part of the city were planted in memoriam of those lost in the bombings. You can tell which buildings were destroyed by the colour of the brick. The air has cooled in darkness; cycling with one hand he uses the other to pull the zip of his luminous jacket all the way up.
‘There’s something about it I love, but at the same time it’s so… oppressive.’
‘Yea! The queues… the civil… obedience. Look at the bar, for example. Where I come from, people don’t stand patiently and wait their turn. And bartenders are agile. They can multi-task. They know who’s next—’
‘—The beer here is shit.’
‘Unless you get into the ales… But bartenders are like acrobats where I come from. Here, everyone seems to have been lulled into this kind of bureaucratic, catatonic state. They’re half-alive. The city is like a waiting room, you know, with a really long wait… I have a theory you know. About that. I used to work for a gardener, and there’s this thing call topiary, where you shape bushes.’
‘I know it. You see it in period films: big gardens, unicorn bushes and things.’
‘Exactly! Well I think this city has that effect on people. Like it shapes them psychologically. It moulds our psychic topiary. All the queues… the systems… traffic lights… loyalty cards… police presence… directions… smartphones… zebra crossings… tenancy agreements and agency fees… supermarket checkouts… a life punctuated by beeps, your oystercard, TfL barriers… It all shapes our pysches, turns us into these obedient beings by applying and setting the boundaries of our daily experience…’
‘So did you like gardening?’
‘It must have been hard work?’
‘What’s the funniest bush you ever trimmed? Oh! I’m being naughty!’
Outside a pub, the smokers gather in smoking zones. It is still early, and they are unsure of themselves. The red glow of their cigarette-drags leaves a trail on his vision: it seems to him suddenly that the whole city is this star system, this universe of different light sources, elemental, electric, holy, digital. But then other times he has thought of the city as some immense insect, with a trillion tiny light bulb eyes, perched on green land, feeding and shitting where it feeds. Twitching. Vibrating. Grooming itself. And the cyclist himself? Neither living nor dead.
Under a dull moon he finally arrives at the empty office building where JP has been a live-in caretaker for the last few months, swinging the bike into the doorway as people stumble by. The street is awash with betting slips and chicken bones.
‘Welcome to the office!’ JP beams as he lets the cyclist in with a realistic handshake. Mentally, the cyclist dismounts into the reality of an empty downstairs office, where the carpet has been stripped and the desks and office chairs are piled up on each other and workplace posters still adorn the blue-taced walls. Have you washed your hands?
‘I don’t use this room,’ JP confirms, as the cyclist leans the bike against the bureaucratic paraphernalia: filing cabinets and pedestal lockers piled high with stacks of damp A4 paper, pen-holders, out-trays, staplers, keyboards, old forms…
JP shows him then an industrial kitchen, with buzzing fluorescent light, and toilets marked separately for males and females.
‘I like to use the ladies,’ JP quips, ‘but I know you prefer the gents.’
‘They even have hand dryers.’
The building is old, and dampness manifests in corners of the stairwell, rising in clouds up the walls. Upstairs, JP shows him other rooms, packed high with mouldy stock in sagging cardboard boxes. The caretaker’s own quarters are at the top of the building and through heavy curtains overlook the typical street: chicken shop, corner off-licence, betting shop, launderette. The room itself is lamplit, warm, with a single made bed, a desk with its own geography of stationary and memento, and the bookshelves he has lugged with him from empty office to empty office over his years in London. It is the cheap rent that lures him, the cheap rent that liberates him.
‘Do you fancy a game of chess?’ he asks the cyclist after he has shown him out onto the flat roof and they have gazed over the rooftops and chimneys as far as dark St. Paul’s. ‘I have a few cans of Jamaican Stripe too?’
The cyclist agrees with a shrug and they descend towards the depths of the building again, to play a game in the industrial kitchen.
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! NOW ON ITS FINAL RUN!
Great mysteries, old stories, bizarre incidents, down there beneath the trembling pavements of the noisy metropolitan zone, beneath how many tons of earth and rubble, in the tiled dimension, where he grows obtuse, grotesque and slanted, in the tunnel corner’s convex mirror, as he swivels, bashes elbows with a lesser man coming the opposite way, neither man stopping, never, and the minutes and the seconds not waiting either for these petty collisions to resolve themselves, but all hurtle on, in this tunnel, phone frantically seeking the network, the device desperate, like him, to perform at the highest speed possible, without interruptions or complications, and as he is told by punctuating posters which books to read, which films to watch, a warm wind, a tunnel sirocco, thrusts past him, generating itself from the depths, a child of the darkness of the tunnel, a thousand dark junctions beyond, through twists and turns to countless platforms like specks of deep space dust, and he—the city worker, the passenger—recognises all of this only as the coming of a train, and he breaks into a trot, his briefcase a pendulum axis, propelling him to his platform in double time, his mac tails falling out in his slipstream, lifted by speed of motion and the velocity of the tunnel sirocco, as he takes the final flight of stairs three at a time before glancing left to see his train, and it must be this train—not the train in one minute, or the train in three minutes, or the train in five minutes—and his synapses fire the alarm as he recognises the throngs of people wedged into the carriage but anyway throws himself through the beeping carriage doors, everything beeping, his phone, the doors, the TfL announcements, and he is through all, already calling out to the crowd, ‘CAN YOU MOVE DOWN, PLEASE?’ as he grasps for a rail to hold onto, because the doors are going to close on him, but he will not be thwarted in his attempt to board this very train, calling louder, ‘CAN YOU MOVE DOWN, PLEASE, FOR GOD’S SAKE?’ and as he presses against damp, warm bodies, as he leans and pants and huffs and tuts and sighs and earns his space, a voice tells him to stand clear of the closing doors and he is in, he has earned it, and with a jerk that very train pulls away from the fluorescent light of the platform into darkness.
A moment to breathe.
To find some extra space.
To remove his phone from his pocket.
To drop his briefcase between his ankles, the words DRY RISER INLET echoing in his mind’s vision.
Lost in the depths of the underground, the dark tunnels beneath clear thought and understanding, the passenger is free to feed on the various entertainments: smartphone, kindle, METRO newspaper… Reality is not experienced any longer, it is consumed. And they have not had to wait so long for it, now, have they? It was only a few tunnels. It was only the distance between two points, dots on a map, a sequence of signposts that by now are known by heart. He looks up from his phone’s applications to cast bitter, impatient glances at all those who interfere with his personal space, who clog public walkways. Beneath the deafening keen of the train’s many carriages, the chain of electric light in the tenebrous black, mice scurry. They have learned to live down here.
Stand back, train approaching. Who among you have not stood back? Stand back! He is the first to emerge as the doors beep beep rapidly and slide open, revealing Him, chest thrust out and already alighting, marching for the stairs. He has reached His destination. The barriers await the loving flick of His Oyster wrist. His name is Bob Moran. He is a Contracts Manager, who lives no more than seventy feet from his tube stop, in Zone Three, over a convenience store, in a one-bed apartment, bills and council tax and water charges included. He will not learn to pronounce his landlord’s name. We shelter him from great psychic pain, from the wonder that loss of self brings, from the terror of the Emptiness, of the fragments he has become. He will cry great salt oceans of tears the day we stop distracting him.
REPORT ALL UNATTENDED ITEMS TO A MEMBER OF STAFF
Rachel’s thoughts of the future lost to objects, here is a list of things she saw from the departing train:
bent steel rods poking out of the mud like the rib cage of some ancient animal skeleton
hundreds of graffiti-ed
codes and secrets
puddled back yards, untidied
rubbish, litter, sinking into the wet bank
waste piping, cable and copper
pipe and vent systems, and clustered satellites on the hidden sides of houses
drab parks with shimmering paths
lonely copses of crooked trees
fences: rusted, aluminium, wooden, chain…
a low-lying, muddy lake
mysterious number-coded signposts
yellow flowering gorse
melting snow glistening and trickling from a steep
terrace roof, the water gleaming on the edges of the slate
a motor scrapyard, vehicle roofs green with mould or moss or slime
planks piled neatly against cavity block walls rusty blue containers in shapeless yards
long-lost traffic cones gothic windows
a burlesque mannequin with a gas mask over the face
her reflection, looking back at her, quite seriously
HAVE YOU TOPPED UP YOUR OYSTER?
Branches thin as fish bones are thrust up towards ashy buds of cloud, as if in offering. Traffic lights, streetlamps, electricity poles, chimneys: all stand erect, stiffened by duty over time, felled only by the most violent abruptions. A stolen car, careering; a mis-manoeuvred shopping delivery… The city tarmac courses through thousands of serpentine pathways, where lorries and buses rumble and luminous cyclists squeeze between on tightropes of space. This is a land of railings mysteriously bent, of warped tile rooftops, of irregular traffic, and the sun rising and falling, trying always to hit every spot in every alleyway, but failing always, with always some chewing-gum pocked dead-end left in cold greyness. Bombs fell once, everywhere. Bombs pounded us.
Smoke drifts from vents and exhausts and chimney shafts. The blue of the sky lemons in the evening. Traffic lights grow and throb. A hula is thrown high in the air one last time before the playground empties. With the light diminished, the thick fat thud of the basketball’s bounce can only be heard now, accompanied by the scuffed movements of the evening kids who throw it.
‘That is moist!’
‘Allow it! Allow it!’
The ball’s bounce recedes into shadow. The overpass suddenly looms, threatens, the broken glass dimsparkling orange in the streetlit gloom. Countless dark windows. The cycle lane is dangerous now. Hooded men linger.
‘Say something constructive!’ comes the argument’s echo.
Conway. Murphy. We built this city. We love the gentle hush of the M25 as the traffic collects itself and begins to breathe gently, sleepily, calmly surging into the pink dawn.