Thirty Thousand Streets

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Your Food City

I moved to London the year the Princess of Wales died. It seems like a long time ago now.

My first flat was a rented studio above a supermarket called Your Food City, on the corner of Essex Road and Cross Street. It went out of business years ago. My landlady, Amrita Kumar, owned the shop as well. She was morbidly fat, and wore a glass eye which would gradually drift oblique to the object of her attention until she realigned it with a thumb. It would squeak when she did that, and she'd bellow with laughter.

"I'm not what I used to be," she'd say. "But none of us are."

Three Turks manned the tills. Their leader, Gedik, was also monocular. He wore an eyepatch rather than a prosthetic, which lent proceedings on the shop floor an oddly nautical feel. Gedik and his lieutenants climbed up and down the overstocked shelving of YFC as though it were the rigging of a ship.

They kept a belaying pin under the counter. I didn't blame them for being nervous; this was 1997, the summer of the Green Giant. Four grocers had been killed in North London since May. The first three had traded further west, on the axis that runs from Maida Vale to Burnt Oak, but the most recent incident was closer: just up the road in Finsbury Park. All bludgeonings. The police only recovered the weapon once: a mangled, bloody can of sweetcorn. Somehow the Evening Standard got a shot of the thing, all crusted and awful, and from then on the name stuck. Kids adopted the Green Giant as a kind of folk-devil. Graffiti appeared on walls up and down the Edgware Road : "HO HO HO", basso-profundo laughter from the advert becoming retrospectively menacing. The company were horrified at this association until someone noticed that sales of their products had actually started going up since the murders began. After that they kept schtum.

"We're not fucking grocers," I'd overheard Gedik say. "What are Cox? I don't know of such things." But the Giant wasn’t subtle in his distinctions. The victim in Finsbury Park was just some kid who spent his Saturday afternoons manning the fruit and veg aisle in Tesco’s on Stroud Green Road. Gedik made practice flails with the pin, trying to compensate for his naturally poor depth-perception. I heard him boasting that he'd killed a man in Trebizond with his hands, but his confidence sounded brittle to me.

The shop's stock was drawn from a spider's web of tertiary North London wholesalers. Some of the indigenous brands - No Frills, Best-In, Fray Bentos - were familiar. But most of the produce came from Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, sometimes further afield. Cans covered in Cyrillic, emblazoned with crudely-drawn pigs or monkeys. Jars labelled in Arabic or Chinese, with ominously doubtful English translations running underneath. "Tomato water." "Best Fool's Egg." “Butterfly Cookie.” "Look-Twice Pudding." The further toward the back of the store you were, the closer to the semantic edge of "comestible" you got.

Invertebrates tumbled over one another in tanks full of dark green water. Things croaked in buckets.

Eventually you'd reach what Gedik called "Fancy Goods". Here were unfamiliar musical instruments, a thicket of elephant tusks projecting directly from the wall, a small literary annex containing books written in languages I couldn't identify, let alone read. Five or six TVs, mounted near the ceiling, were tuned to pirate channels.(Gedik and his crew would gather around them at 8 every evening to watch an illegal late 90s TV series called Policemen Also Cry, a sort of "snuff" version of The Bill, so conservative in its acting and plotting that it wouldn’t have been out of place on ITV except for the salting of real on-camera violence).

They sold clothing from a long-defunct line, "Brioche Brioche"; silk shirts, winkle-pickers, tunics embroidered with horses, Chinese dragons, birds, ohms, ankhs. At the very rear of the shop was a congregation of unidentifiable machines, part Vespa, part lathe, part steam-hammer, oily and black, encrusted with filth and dust. Whether they were for sale or just being stored there against some unimaginable contingency, I never found out. Steps led down here to some sort of cellar, but the sign warned "staff only."

Gedik and his lieutenants would leave gifts outside the door to my flat, whether sincerely or not I never figured out -- food products whose provenance filled me with dread. Coin-thin cross-sections of snout in a pale, lugubrious jelly. Sphincter-rings of pale seaflesh, so fresh that one was still reflexively expanding and contracting. A tub full of something fine and ink-black and glistening which I thought at first might be caviar, but which on closer inspection turned out to be an emulsion of tiny eyes suspended in oil. I spooned it down the sink.

The shop shut at midnight. I'd hear Gedik locking up, the shutters rattle down, and then the sound of traffic mussitating on Essex Road. It was hot. I'd leave my windows open, but sometimes I was too twitchy to sleep. I kept imagining the crab-things escaping from their tanks, buckets of mysterious livebait overturned. I'd go downstairs, let myself into the shop and switch on the strip lights. With the shutters drawn, no-one could see in. I'd take a trolley, fill it whimsically. Pickled lark tongues. Throstle-eggs. A small wooden statue of Bastet. Sometimes I'd play CDs over the speaker system. Gedik favoured muzak versions of Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult and I'd glide up and down the aisles to the Your Food City theme song - a lounge-piano cover of "Don't Fear the Reaper” with Louis Prima vocal styling.

These midnight excursions would always end one way. The further towards the back of the store I got, the harder it would be to carry on. I'd bow my head as though I were walking into a strong wind. The source of this repulsive force seemed to be the stairs to the "staff only" section. Usually I'd give up, empty the trolley and go back to bed. I only made it down those stairs once, senses dulled after a night drinking gin and watching Hungarian porn in my room.

The steps ended in a large, filthy storeroom, filled mostly with what seemed to be abandoned domestic appliances - cookers, fridges, freezers, dishwashers. In the centre of the room an iron ladder descended into darkness. I ran back up to the store and rummaged in “Fancy Goods” until I found a torch. The air got colder and damper the further down the ladder I went, and the shaft finally opened out into a large natural cavern fifty or sixty feet below the level of the store room. I could hear the sound of water running, and a deep, almost geological rumbling that grew louder and then faded again. It took me a little while to figure out that the Victoria Line must have run somewhere close by. The limestone walls were slick with moisture, and it was cold enough to bring me out in gooseflesh.

Here, laid out on a filthy trestle table, was the natural horizon of any definition of "produce". Jars full of shit and urine. Great drifts of plucked eyelashes and fingernail clippings. Rags and bones - various different animals mingled in a sort of ossuary "pick 'n' mix." I paced up and down the length of the table, playing my torch over this miscellany and trying to master my disgust. What was this?

A feast for an unimaginable guest. Or an offering. Sacrament for some vengeful grocers’ deity. Presiding over it all was a great aquarium full of formalin in which, desiccated and wrinkled, floating like dreamfish, were two human eyes. I thought of Gedik and Amrita. I raised the thin, citric beam of the torch higher, the tank becoming a prism of greenish light.

On the back wall, behind the tank, was a crudely-executed mural. Green-skinned, broadchested and straddle-legged and exulting.

A jolly green giant.

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