It was the winter of our discontent.
It was 2017, but everyone who considered themselves anyone thought it was 1964. Jefferson Airplane was on high rotate. People with hair were leaning against walls in dingy flats, flats that were far too small even for the skinny folk who inhabited them. Cigarettes were electric but it was cooler to roll your own. Beat poetry was out, electro was in. Wavy side trim slim fit jean individuals were everywhere. Walking briskly through markets on brisk mornings was considered the thing to do. Bargains were snapped up, vintage clothing was purchased and touted on street corners by a new breed of whore. Slaves to yesteryear. It’s called fashion sweetie, you probably wouldn’t understand. Becoming a junkie was grimy. Being seen with a dealer on the scene was seen as a status symbol, seen? Patriotism was out, proletariats were in. People sat stone-faced in bus shelters and tube stations waiting for a ride to their next pressing engagement. You could spend all day in a museum and not learn a damn thing, which was totally acceptable in some circles, as long as the photos showed your good side. Facial hair was trimmed to casual perfection - the rise of the idiots was upon us. Tablets, Kindle, Smartphones, IPods, iPads, iClouds and all that. The sun was setting and we were too engrossed in the twit feeds to notice the onset of darkness, but there was an App for that, and besides, tomorrow always arrives, just when you least expect it...
The who’s who of who cares shuffled in at leisure, just whenever, they don’t care, they're happy to be seen together. Laugh loud for effect, scan the room to see who’s watching, and laugh louder if they aren’t. No one is really smiling in this city and it’s a crying shame. Mortality in their faces, you could almost sense the fear. The glazed look of hopelessness found. Grown men and women played children’s games to ease the journey they made each day, back and forth in screaming carriages in the gloom and the dark, stale air infecting lungs and minds. Dangerous mix if you ask me. Can’t brighten your day if your thoughts are septic. Young hip individuals bitched about people they couldn’t change – most just stared, transfixed on the image of themselves reflected in the dark windows.
Somehow, I'd found a place here. The meaningless chitchat and inane banter did much to comfort me on those lonely journeys through the subterranean complex. The pitch black passages through which the termites passed. A steady stream of pre-programmed MP3 players, all sounding a different tune. All doing their best to block out the sadness of their reality. I rode the escalators down. Stood on the right, a picture of calm amid the chaos. Then I scrambled back up those same escalators, head down, watching the shoes of those around me, wondering what made them think 'This is the pair for me’. I swept along with the crowd, up, up, up, desperate for a gulp of semi clean air. And just like the rest of them, I was hungry to be someone. Anyone but myself.
I’m not special. I WAS like them. Had a job, earned a wage, even had enough for a beer at the end of the week. I was a 9 to 5 cowboy. The weekend was mine and I would do with it as I saw fit. Generally, I’d wander the markets alone, watching, smelling, tasting, touching, and immersing myself in the vibe. Every few hundred meters I would stop for a cigarette, lean on an unkempt wall, sip strong coffee and simply observe. I’m an observer by nature, not a social recluse, but perilously close to one. I didn’t need anything or anyone and although I (like many) longed for true love there was enough Internet porn available to keep me company on the cold lonely nights.
The lady who lived in the apartment next to me was a mad old shrew with an insatiable appetite for chit-chat. She looked a lot like Karl Lagerfeld, hated immigrants, and never wore a bra, her tits just hung in suspended animation beneath her moth eaten turtleneck. I always saw her nose before I saw the rest of her. Sniffing at the air, beady fink like eyes darting in all directions, never settling on one sight for more than a few seconds. I avoided her like the plague.
Did I mention she was half blind? She was...
"Who is it?"
"It's me, Joan."
"Oh. I thought it was those damn Muslims again. They're everywhere now. Coming in by the boatload with an unnatural agenda. Mind you watch out for em!"
"They're eating babies!”
"No they aren’t Joan."
"Gerald in 4B says they do. And he should know. He’s been to Arabia."
Gerald had lived his entire life in Battersea.
“And I’m not afraid of their bombs either! I lived through the blitz! They strap dynamite to babies and send them out to do their bidding, it's disgusting!"
At least the Germans had the decency to strap their babies into metal aircraft so we couldn't see them.
“I thought they ate their babies?”
“I have to go Joan.”
Jesus, I thought as I bounded down the marble steps, her voice trailing after me. Uninformed bigotry - as inherently British as tea and biscuits. They conquered the known world and much of the unknown one, enslaved entire races, touted the British way of life as a healthy alternative to savagery and as soon as the heathens turned up to take advantage of the offer they backed out swiftly, like they never expected it to actually happen.
"Those savages have really got their shit together - they've taken all our jobs! They don’t even speak English!! I don’t know about you, old chap, but it makes one bloody nervous!"
Truth is, the toffs were especially unscrupulous. Drunken Lords and Ladies made front-page news most weeks. Falling down the steps of grand hotels in dribbling heaps. Shouting racial slurs at the porters and busboys who scrambled to help them up. The cream of the crop come a cropper. A week and an insincere apology later all was forgotten. They could get back to the serious business of mowing poor people down in their Range Rovers and estate wagons, laughing manically, carelessly flinging rubbish out the windows. The strangest part, as far as I was concerned, was that no one seemed in the least bit concerned about this appalling behaviour. I surmised it was probably because no one cared. Caring was a privilege not intended for the underprivileged. The rabble I immersed myself in on a daily basis had better things to do than worry about some uppity tweed clad twat with more money than sense. Still the trash magazines sold like hotcakes.
I exited the building, stood under a dreary, overcast sky then made a left, passing along the row of shops that lined the main street. People were coming and going, carrying bags filled with all manner of strange and exotic delight. New aromas invaded my nostrils. Ahead of me a man in a dirty white coat exited a run down van carrying a pig carcass, as soon as he hit the pavement he was accosted by the owner of the shop next door, a brief scuffle ensued. The carcass hit the ground and rolled lazily into a puddle. The man picked it up, dusted it off and carried on in doors, ranting and swearing. Sirens screamed as a line of police cars, seven deep, swept by. Not one person looked up, only the children who still idolised the flashing blue lights and well-pressed uniforms took the time to glare. They were yet to learn the truth about the world they lived in. Childhood bliss. In this corner of town chances were they'd learn soon enough. It was only a matter of time before storm troopers battered down the front door of the family home at 3am, warrants and assault rifles at the ready, looking for evidence of crimes yet to be conceived.
None of this bothered me. I was oblivious to the noise and chaos and despair of this desperate, heaving city. All was not well in London town. Helicopters hovered above the rooftops and all over the vast metropolis roving gangs of hooded children were taunting helpless drunks as they tried to leave their local bookies. Of course, the poor bastards fight back... they have to. But they have no idea who or why they’re fighting. Further proof that man’s instinct for self preservation can never be completely destroyed by the reckless misuse of legal substance.
The middle class seemed to find safety indoors, and in the knowledge that many trustworthy law enforcement officials were in attendance at any one time, in any one place. Thousands of high definition cameras patrolled every square inch of pavement just in case some poor Middle Eastern woman left her shopping bags unattended. In this age of domestic terror it pays to prepare for the worst. One should never underestimate the peace of mind a rusty blade in your trouser pocket can bring. However. One should never forget that there are always those with bigger and rustier blades, and they're just crazy enough to use them, no matter how menacingly you wave yours.
The House of Windsor had closed ranks and remained locked in their crystal cage, safe from the seething, mewling masses who groped and trampled one another for a glimpse of the royal child. A very reliable source informs the papers that rumour has it his hair is already starting to recede, although his influence grows by the hour. He's already passed into law a bill that allows teenage mothers to dump their unwanted new-borns in his sandpit so he can have something to play with.
Old men in red coats were drinking warm ale and fumbling for the door handles. They resembled the empire they once fought and spilled blood for. Fading into their twilight years. Bulging at the seams. People saw them as heroes, an oddity to be revered, but when they arrived back at their council flats, peeled off their uniforms and medals and stood in front of the mirror all pretence was washed away and they were left with the distressing image of an old man who shits infrequently and complains of a bad back to anyone who'll listen. Nobody does. They're too busy posing for pictures or cueing for an overpriced shandy in a dimly lit bar.
The freaks patrolled the streets after dark. Seething hoards of the mentally distressed - all trying to out weird each other. If Jesus returned he'd fit right in and everyone would miss him. The hip controlled the public spaces, the juice bars, cafes and markets. They sat and drank sparkling wine, chain-smoked cigarettes, quaffed rare cheeses and looked about hopefully to see if anyone was watching them do it. Conversations were held in close proximity via the Internet. Rare vintage road bikes whizzed past at ever increasing intervals, moustaches grew longer and were frequently cultivated outside the hours of November. The majority lived in their headphones because it was safe in there. I did. I didn’t want to talk to these interesting humans anyway. I considered myself too interesting. I enjoyed things like knitting and importing sustainable fish to sell on a Saturday. Well, I didn’t, but I basked in the knowledge that I could, if I wanted to.
Further and further I walked, into the belly of the beast. I paced along the misty canals, down alleys, past snug metro bars where strange and terrifying beasts wearing 2000 pound suits lurked and leered at women.
Before long I made it to the cave entrance and quietly slipped inside. All of a sudden I was back in the world below. That hive of hopelessly depressed worker bees flying at top speed between meetings. Moving about underground, crammed into metal boxes that burrow and whiz through the dirt like giant off-white worms, emitting sparks and screeching at the top of their lungs. I could hear them now, I felt like Frodo hiding in the marshes as the Nazgul swoop low, searching for their next meal.
I was on the platform edge, staring at the tracks. I felt the rush of warm air as the train approached. I thought about waiting till the last second and throwing myself in front of the driver. It was a thought I entertained almost every time I was down here. Depressing place, underground. How unnatural. Humans are supposed to live outside, not burrow deep into the earth. It messes with the melanin. That’s probably why so many people arrived on the platform, stood on the yellow line and thought about how easy it would be to just end it all. To check out. To put a stop to the horror. I wasn’t the type who would usually entertain those thoughts, yet here, in the dungeon, well... It was an easy option and one that many took. The conductor would crackle across the intercom.
"Apologies ladies and gentlemen, someone has thrown himself in front of the train ahead of us, so we'll be stuck here for a few minutes while they hoover what’s left off the tracks"
An audible sigh would echo out from the packed carriages. People would shuffle and mumble to the human being next to them...funny that, no one ever speaks to their neighbour down here. Death and delay brought people together.
"Now I’m going to be late for drinks"
"I know. Bastards. Why can’t they just jump off a bridge like normal people and let the Thames deal with it?"
None of them could ever hope to imagine. I always thought, rather morbidly, that it’d be great to be the cause of their inconvenience. Stepping into oblivion, comforted by the knowledge I was going to piss everyone off and then be forgotten. If only I'd had the balls to actually do it. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I knew there was something better out there. I just didn’t know how to find it.
The red doors opened and I stepped inside the capsule, found a seat, picked up a discarded paper and began to flick through it. Two Jamaican women got on and sat opposite me, they were talking about how useless their husbands were. I pretended to read but the conversation was far more riveting than Boris Johnson’s latest initiative.
"E rang me the maarnin say e need ten pound in is account"
"Why e nee-dat?"
"Me dunno. E say de bank gwan charge’im fah wit-drawl and now e cannt get him to work"
"Dem a nah do dat"
"Me know dat."
"Ya gwan give’em de ten pound?"
"Gyal, dat man ain’t nuh man ataaall"
They got off at the next station, chuckling. I grinned and went back to the paper. Dat man aint nuh man ataaal. The train moved on. My head swayed gently, my eyes grew heavier and heavier, I didn’t fight it, soon enough I was lulled to sleep.
One stop from my destination my eyes opened. Perfect timing. Even when asleep I was doing everything possible to ensure I got out of there at exactly the right moment. I put the paper down next to me, stood up and moved towards the door. The train hit the station at full speed then jerked and squealed to a halt. The doors opened and I stepped out, brushing against the shoulders of those already piling in to take my place. The headphones went up, a new song came on.
Fuck London, I thought, out loud.
I’ve had just about enough of this miserable shithole.
I typed skyscanner.com into my phone - within hours I was in the air, somewhere over the Mediterranean.