I introduced you to Johnny Wilderness - real name Johnny Silverstein - last year. Founding member of The Awkward Squad. You remember the one. Johnny’s super-wealthy father - known in the red-top press as the Merchant Prince, on account of the rags-to-riches story of his going from door-to-door salesmen to multi-millionaire business tycoon with a majority share in a number of the world’s largest accountancy firms - had been engaged in a very specific real estate project since the late 50s. Every time one of the terraces (what Americans call rowhouses) became available on Pericles Road in West Hamsptead, just around the corner from my new digs on Shoot Up Hill, he bought it.
In 99 Silverstein Senior died, and Johnny Wilderness took over the project. I don’t know how much Johnny got his immaculately-manicured hands on, but Zoe reckons it ran into 8 figures.
A couple of months later, the last of the houses on Pericles Road went on the market at a cool £900K, and the estate agent knew not to bother phoning anyone else. Johnny made an offer that very afternoon at 15% above asking price. Three weeks later he’d exchanged contracts. He now owned the entire row - 24 individual Edwardian terraces running south from Mill Lane. He celebrated by opening a bottle of Krug Clos Du Menil 1995 with an 18th century Prussian cavalry sabre, and injecting a small quantity of heroin directly into the tearduct of his left eye.
Next morning he took a shower, swallowed a raw egg and called architects Gallant, Kobiyashi and Flük. The project, conceived four decades earlier by his father, was to knock the terraces together - take out the walls that divided them from one another, and the ceilings, and create one vast room, curving almost 150 meters along the west side of the road. It was an insanely difficult thing to do. Supporting columns had to be placed at stress points to prevent the ceilings from simply caving in. The logistics almost drove Kobiyashi insane, and Flük took over, bringing a dispassionate Scandinavian eye to the project. Windows and doors were left in place, and the individual terraces had their own colour schemes for guttering and front door. Indeed, the facades and the gardens were left in different stages of maintenance and repair, to give the impression from the outside, to the casual observer, that the houses were still discrete, individually-owned and -inhabited units.
It took the best part of a year, and a substantial proportion of the funds Johnny had at his disposal to acomplish it, but accomplish it he did. Pericles Parties in the long, curving corridor became legendary. But the real pay-off for Johnny - the culmination of his dad’s plan - was when door-to-door salesmen called. As I said, that was how Silverstein senior had started life, humping a suitcase full of bow ties, monkey wrenches, teddy bears and alarm clocks from street to street in North West London in the late forties as an austere sun sunk behind the roof tiles. There was a legend amongst the street hawkers back then that if you got a sale at every one of two dozen doors in a row, the company would pension you off to salesman heaven. Impossible? At any rate, no-one had ever managed to pull it off.
But now, almost sixty years later, if your beat happened to be the west side of Pericles Street, NW6, something wonderful might happen. If Johnny was in, and not too wasted, he’d answer your knock at number 1. You’d make your pitch to this lantern-jawed toff, who’d wink at you and rummage in the pockets of his Armani suit trousers for his wallet. First sale of the day, you’d smile to yourself. And you’d march out of the front garden, and try the next house along.
Johnny would answer that door too.
It only worked a couple of times, of course, before word started getting around and every salesman in London beat a path to NW6. But I saw him do it, one of the early ones, before anyone had clocked what was going on, and it was lovely to be there at the punchline of a joke that had been building for forty years. Just a shame the old man never got to see it.
You’ll remember the Council Tax Riots the following year. Angry men and women took to the streets, burning their standing orders and waving their fists at the first floor windows of office blocks. Lots of these people - short-haired, reactionary types - had never been on a march before. They weren’t very good at it. They became abruptly self-conscious halfway through a chant, covered their mouths with their hands. They peeled off unexpectedly into winebars. They held their placards upside down, or left them in the boots of their Vauxhall Cavaliers. Early in the marching season, a copper fell off his horse at the edge of the crowd and broke his neck. It was no-one’s fault, but the police blamed the demonstrators, and somehow the whole thing got out of hand. Five hundred men in Burton suits and their wives in ersatz Laura Ashley were never going to burn down Whitehall. But the cops kept looking for reasons to be heavy-handed. The Evening Standard caught a few of them at it, posted footage on their website. A constable “accidentally” whacking a woman around the chops with his tonfa as he dismounted. Another cantering his horse into a bunch of middle managers. The marchers struck back with fireworks, rolled up copies of the Mail on Sunday.
Meanwhile,I was running into accomodation problems. The university had arranged an 18 month lease on the Your Food City flat, and it expired after Easter my second year. That was the deal for grant students back then. I had a student loan coming later in the year, but I’d need to look after myself for three or four months in the interim, and I couldn’t afford rent, let alone council tax.
I wasn’t the only one. There was a rush of creative squatting towards the beginning of April, and a lot of my friends - including Zoe - arranged new digs for themselves out on Raft City, a flotilla of barges, upturned crates, winch platforms, hulk dredgers, abandoned theatrical scenery, bouncy councils, houseboats, dinghys and surfboards that sprawled along the water from Vauxhall to Waterloo Bridge, virtually closing the river to traffic. The squatters had connected their motley fleet with ladders, ropes and planks of wood. For three or four months that year you could actually walk across the surface of the river from Embankment to the Hayward Gallery without getting your feet wet. The police tried to break it up a few times, and there’d even been talk of the Navy’s involvement, but Raft City’s self-appointed spokesperson, a law student called Malcolm Chum, had dug up some crusty statute dating back to the days of the great Frost Fairs of the 19th century which said that anyone living on the stretch of the river within a mile of Westminster Cathedral was entitled to do so “grace of the Crown”.
By early May I was sleeping on a tent pitched on the sloping, rusty hull of an old fishing trawler anchored mid-stream. If I opened the door flap an inch or two I could see the London Eye slowly revolving above me.
Zoe and another friend from the course called Charlie Tipness lived a couple of rafts upstream. It took a while to get used to the rocking motion, but it was rent-free, and judging by the speed with which the “Emergency Waterways Bill” was going through Parliament, I knew it would be the last time in London’s history anything like this would happen, so I was glad to be part of it.
There were other downsides though. You could hear the rats paddling from raft to raft after the sun went down. And the smell was narcotic, especially at low tide when the sandbanks steamed in the sun. Fish, garbage and effluent from the five thousand unplumbed settlements on the water. It wasn’t pleasant.
Towards the end of the summer, there was something else. People began vanishing, mostly people living on the fringes of RC, nearest the beaches, whose moorings were left dry when the tide went out. Half a dozen of them, maybe more. There were stories about something that crawled along the stanchions of Lambeth Bridge – something with long spatulate fingers and skin the colour of river mud. All bullshit of course. The kids who “disappeared” had probably just had enough of the smell. But Chum and his “senate” introduced a bylaw requiring that every vessel of more than 20 square feet kept a lamp lit from dusk until dawn. The effect was beautiful. I can still see that tangle of lights threaded double across the river, once each in air and water.
All the same, I was glad when my loan came through and I could strike my tent and hop north on the tube to Kilburn, my jeans still stiff with salt. I watched coverage of the Navy breaking up Raft City on the flatscreen TV in the bedroom of my newbuild flat at the bottom of Shoot-Up Hill.
They never found those missing kids. But they did find their clothes, all balled up and stuffed behind a loose slab of rock in the river wall just below the National Film Theatre. Clothes and a handful of teeth - nothing else. Molars, incisors.
Ah well. The exam season rolled around again, and I had other things to think about.
Summer 98 was hot. Seriously hot. Tenants in council blocks set up Zed-Beds on their balconies. An unscrupulous tour operator on the Victoria embankment bought a cheap job-lot of rowing boats, hand-painted a sign (“A Cooling Thames Tradition”) and hired them out to tourists as though this was something de riguer. Each boat would swing out into the current and glide smoothly and irresistibly down river towards the Isle of Dogs and the heavy shipping lanes beyond, no matter what direction the now pale-faced passengers were rowing in.
Meanwhile, fleets of medium-sized ice-making robots patrolled the streets, emblazoned with the GLA logo, doling out ice-cubes to anyone who wanted them. The idea was that you rubbed them on your wrists and forehead to bring your body temperature down, and were grateful for it. The staff at the Compton Arms just off Highbury Corner were fined thousands of pounds for catching one and imprisoning it in a back room for the amusement of customers. They were caught when the panicking robot lurched through a window in a bid to escape, careening out onto Canonbury Road and causing a nasty pile-up when a scaffolding truck swerved to avoid it.
After that there was a public awareness campaign about making proper use of council facilities. The jingle is still playing on loop ad nauseam in some tiny corner of my subconscious. The tune is hard to describe.
“The robots that your GLA provides Eb and flow through the streets like metallic tides Bestowing ice on weary supplicants just like you Of which they make proper use - at least, the good ones do. We leaven our instructions with some friendly winks But please don’t trivialise the situation by putting the ice in your drinks.”
That last line was a problem, like the series of broken arpeggia at the end of De Profundis which are said to have driven Schoenberg mad. A musicologist friend tells me that it suddenly swerves from 4/4 time into a chiasmus of 16 beats - possibly the only jingle in history to have attempted something so ambitious. There was a great furore in the left-wing press about the use of the word “good” in the fourth line - good in what sense, asked Polly Toynbee - and then a back-lash in the right-wing press accusing the left-wingers of moral relativism. Lots of people, including me, didn’t understand what was wrong with putting the ice in your drinks in the first place. Eventually a council official had to go on the Today Programme to explain that the problem wasn’t putting ice in your drinks per se, but that they didn’t want the robots to encourage the consumption of alcohol, which could worsen dehydration. The whole thing became a bit of an embarrassment for them in the end.
The minimarket underneath my flat, Your Food City, was one of the few places on Essex Road with functioning air conditioning. I’d hang out in the aisles with Zoe and the rest of the Awkward Squad, trying to contrive reasons for our being there so that we wouldn’t be slung out by the zealous day-manager, Gedik. We’d pretend to be absorbed in conversation over the provenance of some terrifying processed meat product, or debate the relative virtues of various different brands of Tomato Water, while the Turk twirled his belaying pin.
The headlines in the papers were all about global warming. As August became September, the sky darkened and it started to rain incessantly. The temperature hardly jittered. It felt like a monsoon. The global warming headlines went from 18-point type to 20-point. A young woman rolled herself off Waterloo Bridge in a great papier mache effigy of a weeping planet Earth in a bid to become a climate-change martyr.
The globe floated beautifully, however, and she was picked up unhurt by the coast guard, taken into custody, and beaten into unconsciousness by a contingent of drunken detectives for wasting police time. The Sisterhood for a Greener Future started a poster campaign featuring her bruised face on billboards all over the city. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner resigned, was reinstated, resigned again.
The level of the river crept up. Engineers down at the Thames Barrier started looking shifty, comfort-eating, taking up smoking in droves. At the beginning of October, someone photographed a crab crawling out of a storm drain, and it ended up on the front page of the Standard, oversized claws covered in thick, bristling hairs, like mittens.
Before long they were surfacing all over city, from the drains and sewers to toilets in private bathrooms. The roads became a grim miscellany of smashed carapaces. I like to think I led a charge here. I’d gather the fuckers on my way back from university, throw them in a pan of boiling water until they turned from blue to shocked scarlet, and eat them smoking hot. Fantastic. By November the corner vendors had thrown their monkey nuts and caramel into the river and the streets were full of the sound of crabs tapping politely but insistently on the inside of heating metal urns.
The temperature plummetted mid December, and the crabs vanished. It actually snowed that Christmas, for the first time in a decade. Some kids made a snowman on the corner of Essex Road, just outside my front door, with bottletops for eyes and a jutting car exhaust pipe for a penis.
The old Lido on Seven Sister’s Road closed in the late 70s. I think in theory the building has been condemned all this time, though the council never get around to doing anything about it. Local people are always agitating one way or another. Some of them want it pulled down, say that it’s a useless eyesore. And there’s the inevitable contingent of English Heritage nuts and Lido-fanciers who want it refurbished, who dream of haphazard Saturday afternoons, that noise of hysterical bonhomie that always seems to hover high above a swimming pool - the aggregate of shrieks, laughter and the lifeguard’s whistle, part kids’ party, part maritime disaster.
I was fascinated by it when I first moved to London in the late 90s, this crumbling art deco palace overlooking Finsbury Park, decked out in graffiti, with boarded-up windows and a central tower blackened by some long-forgotten fire. It reminded me of the sea, perhaps because there was something of the beached ocean-liner in the way its huge, wedge-shaped façade jutted above the seedy hotels and council blocks of N4. The building was enormous, a 30s leisure-palace, with two tiers of swimming pool on the roof and a heated indoor pool downstairs, all, I assumed, empty now. I used to sit in the park, consuming bagels from The Happening Bakery on the corner of Blackstock Road, and watch great flocks of seagulls wheeling above it.
This was about the time that Zoe, my then girlfriend, introduced me to a group of her friends who called themselves The Awkward Squad. They were ex-public school boys from places like Canonbury, Highgate, Hampstead proper, Gibson Square, who were playing at being anarchists. Zoe, not wealthy herself, had been invited to join them by an ex-boyfriend, Pat Sugar, identifiable by his kiss curl and a sort of reflex cringe he did whenever she walked into the room. I was well on the way to developing one of those myself.
Their leader, who called himself Jonny Wilderness, but was actually an accountant’s son from Edgware (real name Jonathan Silverstein), had this obsession with subverting kitsch comforts. Once, shortly afteer I met them, they piloted a dozen hot air balloons over Regent’s Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Everyone loves balloons. Even the word “balloon” has a sort of ingenuousness and innocence about it. But the Awkward Squad had had theirs decked out with enormous pornographic images - tumescent penises, breasts, stills from the Gentleman’s Equestrian Review blown up 20 feet fall. Zoe and I, forewarned, found a good vantage point in the park and were eating a bag of pretzels, waiting for the Squad to fly over. Just after 2 o’clock the balloons rose above the treeline one by one, like a series of thought bubbles. Families came to attention. Kids carped happily. And then a sort of collective groan rippled across the park, joy turning to dismay, as the images emblazoned on the balloons came into focus. Jonny Wilderness was piloting the first one, which was decked out in purple to resemble an enormous bell-end. He was drinking Veuve Cliquot straight from the bottle, flashing the V-sign to park-goers with his spare hand and bellowing something about how he was going to “fuck the sky.”
They were arrested, fined, made to do community service. Jonny Wilderness had to apologise in person to one traumatised little boy. But to the Squad it was all worth it. “Balloon Saturday” was one of their greatest coups.
Another thing they liked to do was to break into the Seven Sisters Lido at night.
The tradition was that they’d gather in a bar just behind King’s Cross called The Sex Dragon Aquarium. Collectively - and particularly from a distance - they made that braying sound that public school kids make en masse, like a field full of aristocratic horses. I’d hook up with Zoe there and we’d drink shots of grappa and play proper, old-fashioned billiards on a table in a back room. The bouncer, Erica Polotskaya, took a liking to me. She was a tall, wiry woman who wore a set of Gaudier-Brzeska brass knuckles under a swollen leather glove on her right hand. She had a load of scratchy Edith Piaf records she was always pestering Justine, the proprietor, to play. When business was slow she’d sit and smoke cigarettes while I circled the billiard table. She told me I had a wonderfully symmetrical face. Her grandfather had come to London from Latvia in the 1930s, changed the family name to Peterson. Sometimes she’d launch into long stories about how the city had changed. Her father had been a policeman his whole life, with a beat that took him from the bottom of Rock Street in Finsbury Park all the way up to Highbury Corner. He’d reverted to the original family name, and the locals called him Shotgun ‘Skaya because he always carried a 12-gauge in a shopping bag. He hardly ever took it out, except when the local kids lined up and pleaded for a glimpse. Just a laconic gesture with the bag was enough to silence any Turkish speak-easy or cancel a skipfight in the wasteland behind Stroud Green. Because he always carried it in his right hand the musculature on that side of his body became overdeveloped, particularly his shoulder and forearm, the way a fiddler-crab has an outsized claw.
“That’s why I’m so much stronger on the right side, see? All that walking with the shotgun he did.” Erica clenched her bicep and balled her right hand into a fist, the leather glove creaking. The Squad boys were always very polite to her, no matter how drunk they got.
“You're so wrong," I told her. “That isn’t something you can inherit.”
She thrust out her chin. “My dad passed the benefit down to me.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“So you don’t think I could knock a dent in that symmetrical face of yours?”
At around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights we’d say goodbye to Erica and Justine and catch a small fleet of taxis north to Finsbury Park. The Squad accessed the Lido via a little culvert which opened in the middle of the old animal cemetery in the park, part of a drainage system that was somehow integrated with the obsolete water pumping machinery underneath the pool. God knows how they’d found out about it. We entered by jumping over the fence at a point where lots of foliage overhung Seven Sister Road, hoping no-one on the street side would spot us.
Then we had to navigate across the park. It was officially closed at night. In actual fact, when the sun went down and the regular citizens left, the nightshift would emerge from the trees. These were a mélange of crack addicts, skipfighters, hookers and their clients, muggers, extortionists, bagmen, gangstas (real and wannabe in roughly equal proportions), black marketeers, scared-but-adventurous Japanese tourists, out of work clowns and jugglers and fire-eaters and cabaret artists, fallen civil servants, disgraced Tory politicians, itinerant artists and incompetent performance poets. The park at night had its own etiquette and economy. Hustlers in porkpie hats dealt “Find the Lady” on folding tables. A gypsy woman with a face you could fall a thousand miles down read your future in a pack of cards for £5 a throw. Crackpipes glowed like fireflies behind the tennis courts. The courts themselves played host in the darkness to a nocturnal variety of tennis called "Exasperation". A little bazaar lined the main East-West pathway, stores selling bush meat, illegally imported cigarettes and liquor, Chinese kites, chophouse chocolate, pirated videos and DVDs, stolen tamegotchis, replica martial arts weapons. I once saw two men haggling over a dead python suspended in a huge glass urn of vitriol.
The main event at weekends was a skipfight, just outside the boundaries of the park itself, on the edge of the old train-line leading from Islington to Highgate. The closing-time crowd paid £5 a head to watch a naked man fight an English Bull Terrier in a skip. There were variations on the formula: sometimes there was more than one dog, or the man had a weapon. Sometimes the skip was on fire - “a BBQ” - or the dog had been dipped in phosphorescence - a “Baskerville.” It was never an edifying spectacle. We’d keep our heads down, give the skipfight crowd a wide berth.
The culvert is hard to spot if you don’t know it’s there. You have to climb down a steep embankment to a small, weed-choked stream running through the middle of the old animal cemetery, which was founded at the northern end of the park back in the late 19th century. The grave stones tend not to be much more than a foot or so high, though one particularly aristocratic pet, “Master Jeremiah”, has his own miniature mausoleum, a replica of Pencarrow House in Cornwall that came up to my waist. Cat, dog, rabbit? I think monkey, given the references to dancing and nuts in his epitaph.
Oh little Jeremiah danced, Ate peanuts by the pound. Task done, a young girl’s life enhanced, He’ll dance on underground.
It’s best not to look at the stream too closely. Zoe called it the Styx, and its surface is jelly-thick with abandoned prophylactics. Just above the level of the water there’s a small opening in the embankment, sealed with a rusty metal grill padlocked shut. Every paid-up member of the Squad had a key, and that included Zoe. We’d let ourselves in and shuffle along a low, dank tunnel which gradually gets taller and wider, until you can just about stand up straight.
After about 700 meters the tunnel goes under the road, and you can hear the muffled swish and rattle of traffic above you. Then you come to a sort of kink - the tunnel itself carries on, turning abruptly left and down, but there’s a wall in front of you, with another grill. The grill opens into a subterranean shower room, still with its original art deco tiling by Craven Dunill Jackfield. Stairs lead up to the male changing rooms, from which a further entrance opens to the indoor pool area, with stairs ascending to the outdoor pools. There’s a little empty footbath here, which must once have served as a sort of inoculation against the water proper.
The room beyond is a magnificent, palatial chamber. The tall, narrow windows overlooking the park are boarded up, but in a way this worked to the Squad’s advantage - they brought in a generator and rigged up multi-coloured spot lighting in here without having to worry that it could be seen from outside. Low music throbbed from concealed speakers mounted high on the walls. And - this is what really threw me when I first visited the Lido - the pool was actually full of water. Some biddable older brother on the council long ago found a way of arranging for it to be pumped into the building on the sly. New chemical filtration systems had been installed, so the water was fresh and clean. The Squad lay around on loungers at the edge, or languorously swam back and forth. A secret swimming pool. The first time I went they were projecting some 50s musical onto the wall - I think it was Pillow Talk. “Time of the Season” by The Zombies was drifting across the water. Someone served me an inaugural banana daiquiri from an industrial refrigerator they’d dragged in. Jonny Wilderness came running down the stairs from the roof stage right and was silhouetted for a second in profile, freeze-framed in his tousled suit, head tilted back, champaign bottle to his lips, before he crashed into the pool.
One night I went swimming and found a hole in the side of the pool, about five feet below the waterline. I felt it with my foot - my toes drifting into space when I’d expected them to strike the tiled wall. When I ducked my head under I realised I was looking at an opening, just about large enough to swim through. The thought that the pool was only an annex to some other, possibly larger body of subterranean water made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. What the hell was down there? I asked Jonny Wilderness later, but none of the Squad knew or cared.
A few nights later I decided to find out for myself. The opening was just big enough for me to slither through. The water on the other side was dark and cold. I took a last look at the illuminated pool behind me, and swam in.
Some primitive instinct guided me through the darkness. Or something in the water, equivalent to the tendril of smell the Bisto kids follow home to their mother’s kitchen. I swam down to a thermocline where the water grew smoky and chill and a large current plucked at my body and dragged me further downward, the pressure in my ears growing. I was beginning to panic now, and I twisted my body around and tried to swim back. For a moment, far away through the water, I could see the exit to the Lido, brilliantly illuminated and crowded with the impassive faces of the Awkward Squad. Jonny Wilderness seemed to be waving. I struggled back towards them, but the current was dragging me in the opposite direction. So I kicked upward instead, with all my strength, praying that I’d break the surface of the water any second. I don’t remember doing so; at some point I must have lost consciousness, and I still don’t know why I didn’t drown.
I came to on the shore of a subterranean lake. Waves lapped gently against slimy stone. I was suffused with an almost paralysing sense of unreality. I got to my feet and, stumbling now and then, made my way towards a bonfire I could see burning a few hundred yards down the coast.
What shall I tell you about the people who inhabited the caves below the Lido? Their eyes were huge and unseeing. They had an ingenious method for hunting bats. It goes like this: you wait until you can hear wings snickering in the air around you. You pluck a stone from the floor of the cave and throw it over your head. The bat’s sonar registers the small flying object as an insect, and it swoops down for a snack. You swing the tennis racket hard and if you time it just right you knock the little squeaker out of the air and then you fall on it and pull off its wings and roast it on a spit over a fire.
I spent what seemed like months with the underpeople. They told me that paraphernalia drifts down from the daylit world they’ve never known – one boy showed me his collection of sticking plasters, goggles, Becks bottle tops and a veruca sock. Not knowing when or if I would see Zoe again, I hooked up with a night girl whose name was a gloccal stop and who tilted her big blind eyes up at me when I spoke, flat and glinting in firelight like coins. Her skin was unimaginably soft. Her name, I learned, meant “moth”. When we lay down to sleep the boys took turns to sing The Numbers, a chant they used to keep track of time, slow at night and faster during the day, and fastest when they hunted. Cut off from the wider cycles, the pulse of night following day, autumn following summer, they tracked the universe by enumerating heart beats. I thought I sensed the seasons on the move too, a difference in the patterns of the fungus blooms by the lake and in the behaviour of the pale inedible blindfish that slithered half out of the water when the night people lit a fire and croaked like jackdaws. Autumn must have been turning into winter in the city.
Odours were important in the world beneath the swimming pool, and my girlfriend would carefully sniff each part of my body like a very methodical dog. She particularly liked the smell of my eyes, she said. When I asked her how they smelt she said their archaic word for “pale”. Their religion was based on smells, too, and they worshipped their dead who lived in a network of caves on the furthest bank of the lake from the ledge where they lit their fires. By which I mean their corpses were stored there, the oldest dead, the last of the seeing who had brought with them memories of the world above furthest toward the back of the cave, and the youngest dead nearer the front. Moth told me that one day the cave would be full and then the dead would have to remain with the living, presumably in the form of zombies a la George Romero’s Day of the Dead, though she wasn't specific on this point. I accompanied the immediate members of her family on a swimming pilgrimage to the caves to pay respect to their ancestors and the smell was like a god or a demon, so strong that it segued into metaphysics and almost drove me mad, and at a certain point our path was blocked by a curtain of the fungus which blooms on the skin of the ancestors. A sect of priests live here and chant a special Numbers For the Dead, the slowest of all.
Something odd happened to my sense of the passage of time after I’d been with the underpeople for a while. I’d come back to myself in the middle of the night, suddenly becoming aware of someone muttering the Numbers quietly nearby, and look at the low embers of the nearest fire. When I thought about my life in the world above, it seemed increasingly remote and drained of colour, like a dream that becomes inaccessible on waking, and I had no idea how long it had been since I swum through the hole.
But now that I'm back, the reverse is true. The details of my time with the underpeople elude me as soon as I try to put them into words. All that I can tell you is this: that as a result of some sort of terrible social transgression on my part I was sentenced to an indescribable punishment which my girlfriend suffered in my place and which left her unable to recognise my smells or my voice and that for the final months I lived in the caves as an exile, learning to eat the blindfish, and hunted by the girl’s scandalised family.
One day, when they finally had me cornered, just as I could hear their toenails scratching across the stone floor towards me, electric torchlight cut through the darkness, and a wiry figure leapt from behind a nearby rock with a wild scream. It was Erica Polotskaya from the Sex Dragon Aquarium, jabbing rebarbatively with her brass knuckles. Underperson-ribs cracked. Underperson-noses crunched. Finally they fled, and Erica leant against a wall, panting to catch her breath.
“Where the hell did you come from?” I gasped.
“You mean,” she panted, “thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Jonny Wilderness and your girlfriend Zoe said you might be down here.”
“You know about this place?”
“Yep. It was part of my dad’s beat when I was a kid. These wankers couldn’t see the shopping bag, of course, so dad would have to take the 12-gauge out and pump a round into the chamber to let them know he was here. They didn’t misbehave. Come on.”
And with that she took me down a little side passage which led quite casually onto the northbound Victoria line platform at Finsbury Park tube station, only one stop from home.
I was studying at St Killian’s College. You know all about St Killian’s, I bet; how its founder, the Victorian philanthropist Idris Randle, had wanted to create an institution that would challenge its students at every level, encourage them to think laterally.
Partly for this reason, partly because he had access to almost unlimited funds, and partly because he thought it would be fucking cool, he commissioned the engineer Robert Stephenson to build a “wandering” university - a vehicular campus, with four powerful piston-driven steel legs, that stalked around the outskirts of the city like a vastly outsized tortoise, emitting great flatulent clouds of steam and occasionally shedding the tiny, shrieking figure of a lecturer or student who’d tumble into safety netting slung beneath the chassis. We had to call the admin office every day to find out where the campus was, or check the university website, where a map showed its route across London as a dotted line of "thumbs up" signs. St Killian’s would most often be found on the edge of one of the city’s great open spaces - Clapham Common, Regent’s Park, Hampstead Heath. Occasionally it would make quick forays into the city centre using the Thames itself as a sort of corridor, splashing its way unsteadily amongst the barges and leaving happy gaggles of Japanese tourists on every bridge.
UCL and King’s College students sneered at St Killian’s, which they called the Waddling Polytechnic. But something about the idea of entrusting my further education to an institution founded by an opium addict appealed to me.
It isn’t St Killian’s I want to tell you about right now, but something that happened to me during the spring term of my first year there, insignificant in one sense - hermetically sealed in its own bubble as an experience, because until now I was the only one who knew it had happened - but also unforgettable. From February to March '98 the college stayed put while the engine was overhauled, crouching in the middle of Hyde Park in the driving rain like a squat iron god. I got to know the 398 bus pretty well; straight up Grey’s Inn Road to King’s Cross, along the Euston Road, Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Street.
The drivers on that route had this fetish going for nostalgic confectionary - cola cubes, pear drops, those old-style blocks of liquorice, so inky and insoluable that attempting to eat one was like smearing on blackface. A fistful of cinder toffee would get you as far as Marble Arch without a ticket. A quarter of chocolate-covered ants and you could smoke cigarettes on the top deck, or flash the other passengers with impunity.
Alas, the 398 was also haunted, or so the story went. Traumatised passengers would stagger up to the driver’s cabin with shocks of blanched hair, bloodshot eyes. One guy - happy, well-balanced, said his friends - fell asleep on the top deck, woke up, rang the bell, stepped off at Hanway Street and threw himself with calm deliberation under a scaffolding truck.
Another, a middle-aged businessman, was found curled foetal and unresponsive under the upstairs back seat when the driver got the bus to the depot. A paramedic brought him out of his trance, but he hasn't spoken since. Just sits in the living room of his house in Kensal Green writing out an apparently arbitrary sequence of numbers on endless reems of paper, and subsisting entirely on orange zest, root ginger and bowls of luke warm miso soup.
After lobbying from the transport unions that particular bus was taken out of service, which didn't actually help any; the problem wasn’t a haunted bus, but a haunted bus route. The MTA wouldn’t go as far as diverting it; taking a bus out of service as a sop to bad feeling was one thing, but authorising a change in routes was a whole new proposition. How would they explain it to the Council? You can't legislate for the supernatural.
Of course, I didn’t believe any of the stories for a minute. I’d ride the 398 at night without a second thought.
There was this one time, though.
I was sitting upstairs at the front with a bag full of lecture notes on my knee, on my way back east. It was late. I’d slipped the driver half a dozen sherbert flying saucers, and I was sucking hard on a Marlboro Yellow, watching this fat man sitting across the aisle from me in the reflection in the window. Seriously fat - I mean orca-fat, clinically obese. Fat men fill me with a kind of secret sadness. I imagine them alone in their beds, holding themselves, wishing there wasn't so much. I know it's patronising.
This guy was different, though, snaffling a bag of Ruffles, fingers shiny with grease. He looked as though he liked being fat. Every now and then he’d stop eating the crisps and put the bag on the seat and he’d run his hands up and down his upholstered chest and stomach, revelling in his bulk. I was transfixed, and I could watch as long as I liked, because, like I said, I wasn’t looking directly at him, I was looking at his reflection in the window.
Which was fine, until I got up at my stop, and clocked that the top deck of the bus was empty. And when I looked back at the half-misted glass, the fat man was still there, eyes locked to mine, smiling with livid wet lips as he gradually dissolved in the neon on Essex Road. The lips stayed there a good couple of seconds after the rest of him had gone; like the Cheshire Cat's grin in Alice.
So I got off and walked back to my place above Your Food City, smoking a fresh cigarette. Next morning I discovered that the university had upped sticks, and was waddling north towards Primrose Hill like a junkyard armadillo.
I haven't caught the 398 since. And I never told anyone that story until just now.
I needed a job to tide me over. I had a small grant, a rapidly dwindling student loan, a pittance from my mum and dad. I’d work weekends and university holidays. Not having any particularly well-defined skill set, I signed up with a general employment agency called Avid! Recruitment.
Avid!’s offices were at the corner of Liverpool Road and Chanson Street, a short walk from my flat above Your Food City. They usually found work for Islington’s factions of itinerant Australians, but they were happy to have an English boy on their books, especially as I could segue into an RP accent pretty much on demand. This was back when RP was still fashionable, and they wanted me to work phones. A lot of their clients ran call-centers.
My first job was as an Apologist in the Complaints Department of a parcel delivery company, Black Arrow, based up in Wood Green. Black Arrow distributed catalogues for Grattan, Argos furniture, and hardcore pornography for mail-order suppliers like Melody, Curious Times, and The Gentleman’s Equine Review.
They weren’t very good at it.
To make matters worse, they had no complaints procedure. My job was to lift the phone when it rang and accept whatever abuse the disappointed customer in question threw at me. I was also authorised to make three basic levels of apology, as well as variants thereof:
Level 1: “We’re sorry.” Simple.
Level 2: “Please accept our sincerest apologies, and forgive the Black Arrow operative in question. He’s been under a great deal of pressure recently.” Elaborate.
Level 3: “On behalf of Black Arrow Ltd, I’m so fucking sorry this has happened. So fucking sorry.” Abject.
I was rationed to five Level 3s per day, beyond which the boss feared his company would descend into a sort of existential freefall - “there’s only so much past you can repudiate” - so I had to pace myself. This was stressful work. In mute acknowledgement of that fact I was plied with chamomile tea and Marlboro Yellows. I learnt to apologise with a cigarette dangling permanently from one corner of my mouth.
“One of your operatives has just delivered a pigeon to my house.”
I scrabbled on the desk for my fallen cigarette.
“I thought the package looked a bit bulky, and the wrong shape, but I signed for it anyway, bloody idiot that I am. Inside was an iron birdcage.”
“Madam, I - “
“Do Grattan know how often you mess this up? The door on the sodding cage was open, and now I’ve got a pigeon flying around my house. And I’d like to know,” voice hardening, “what you intend to do about it…”
Level 1, proceeding to a Level 2. My final recourse was always to put the customer in question through to the Logistical Procedures Department, a room at the very back of the Black Arrow depot, bare except for a desk with a phone on it, a yellowing note pad on which someone had doodled a picture of an erect penis in Biro, and a small, devoted congregation of dust bunnies. The door was always closed. No-one worked in Logistical Procedures, and the phone could pretty much ring forever as far as the dust bunnies were concerned.
“Listen son.” Voice thick with cigarettes and grief. “Your driver threw the parcel over my garden wall. Now I happen to breed Siamese. The parcel’s come over - ” he breaks off to sob. “The bloody parcel’s only come over and killed Siouxie...”
Level 2. Level 2. Then, later the same morning:
“I’VE GOT A GOOD MIND TO CALL THE FUCKING POLICE.”
“Madam, please could you -.”
“DON’T YOU TELL ME WHAT TO DO. FILLING MY HOUSE WITH THAT SMUT. I HAVE A THREE YEAR OLD DAUGHTER. HOW AM I MEANT TO EXPLAIN WHAT SHE SAW?”
“The Gentleman’s Equine Re-“
“YOU CAN ROLL UP YOUR ‘GENTLEMAN’S REVIEW’ AND I’D TELL YOU WHERE TO STUFF IT, EXCEPT YOU’D PROBABLY FUCKING LIKE THAT, WOULDN’T YOU?”
Level 3. Level 3. Level 3. Then over to my “colleagues” in Logistical Procedures.
I lasted for two weeks, which my handler at Avid later told me was an agency record. Then I threw up my hands. I felt like a fucking sin-eater. And please, please, no more dealing with the public. So he found me another placement, this time working shifts up at Heathrow, preparing airline meals for a French company called Le gout des ciels - Taste of the Skies. Those little trays would come gliding inexorably along a conveyor belt.
The first guy would deposit a pinch of salad. The next guy along would scoop in caucasian-coloured prawns in Marie-rose sauce. I’d add a slice of lemon and a sprig of parsley. And repeat. We worked the belt three hours at a stretch sometimes, and when the time came for a coffee break and the supervisor switched it off we’d all stagger sideways to compensate for the lack of motion.
I met my first London girlfriend at the Gout des ciel plant. Her name was Zoe. She was beautiful. She looked a bit like a stuffed owl. I clocked her reading a Marc Behm novel in the canteen before the shift. We used to sneak cigarettes together in the car park, and she started giving me lifts home. Her flat was just up the road from mine, in Seven Sisters. She told me her flatmate, Rhianna, stole all her boyfriends, so she used to make me ride in the boot to protect me from acquisitive eyes.
The relationship ran into trouble fairly soon. She had a broad sadistic streak which wasn’t even wired directly to her sex drive. She liked to tie her boyfriends to a wall in her bedroom and throw small objects at them - Rubiks Cubes, pencil-sharpeners, Stickle Bricks, juggling balls, anything she could find lying around the flatshare.
She kept a fat magic-marker handy, and whenever she scored a particularly satisfying hit she’d draw a circle around the spot so that she could strike it again and again and cultivate a good bruise.
Zoe used to hang around the derelict Lido on Seven Sisters Road in the middle of the night with a group of friends. They called themselves the Awkward Squad, and I’ll tell you more about them another time. We’d all sit in a ring on the edge of the empty swimming pool on the roof, drinking slivovitz and watching crack pipes glow like fireflies amongst the trees in Finsbury Park. I loved it. This was how I had imagined life in London might be.
University term started at the end of September, so I quit the Heathrow job, and Zoe and I began to see less of each other. Her birthday was in October and staggering back drunk from the lido in the early hours of the morning I agreed to be tied up for old time’s sake. Big mistake. She threw a fucking stapler at me and cracked one of my ribs. That pretty much signified the end of that first phase of our relationship, though we’ve stayed friends. She’s great. But I tend not to set her up with men I know unless I’m harbouring a very specific kind of grudge against someone.
I carried on working for Avid! the whole time I was at university, though I never let them send me back to Black Arrow. In a distracted moment I recently ordered some flat-pack bookshelves from Argos. I stayed home waiting for the damn things to turn up for 48 hours straight. Eventually I had to go out for cigarettes. When I got back there was a parcel sitting on my doorstep.
It had been on fire until recently. Still was, I realised, just about, a couple of embers tumbling along the garden path in the breeze. I glimpsed the driver slipping surreptitiously across the road, breaking into an all-out run when I called out to him.
I nearly picked up the phone. I nearly did. Then I had a sudden mental picture of half a dozen dust bunnies dancing on a convection current in an otherwise empty room.