W11. I live in the postcode area which is meant to be the richest in London. No, the richest in the whole bloody country. The news told me that this morning. There’s a one-time film director who lives down the road in a ten-million-pound house. We’ve got a shed load like that. You can spot the slummers pretending to be on their uppers. The Tamsins, Tarquins and Trustafarians. And rubbing shoulders with that elite bunch of creeps we’ve got the working poor and the non-working poor. We’ve got the mad and the bad and the sad and the uber-chav. The richness statistic can go suck itself.
Up until April I was one of the working poor. My name’s Richard Farley. When I first moved here I heard violin music from the block across the road. It was a warm summer evening. Housing association place, but yeah, it was okay. I’d fallen on my feet, so to speak. I didn’t know they’d put me next door to a drug-addled nutter who played drum and bass all night and most of the day. Boom boom boom, it goes. You think it’ll never stop. Then it stops only to start again. I’ve complained no end of times, kept a log like they told me to. Now him and his mates are threatening me. We can sort it out on the street, one of them told me, his cousin or something. Why do they always have so many cousins? I don’t have any cousins. He was screaming at me across the stairwell. I’m ashamed to say I pissed myself slightly. Warm line down my trakky bottoms. I even apologised. Since then I’ve been carrying a screwdriver. I won’t carry a blade. I’ve no backup, you see. I’m a bit of a loner, and the authorities do bugger all; they won’t take anyone on. They leave us lot to get on with it. A bully’s charter, basically. A nutjob’s free pass.
Anyway, I was working at this hotel in Hammersmith. I started working nights as I wasn’t getting any sleep with idiot features next door. It was a crummy hotel, I wouldn’t have stayed there if you paid me. I had relatively little to do on shift, a bit of cleaning, checking in late guests, security, I suppose. A couple of regular stayers had people visiting them every half hour through the night. Mr. Briffa told me to ignore it. As long as they had the guest’s name, he said, don’t worry about it. And there was Marcia in room 14. It was clear what she was up to. Visitors all night, sometimes up to twelve separate characters. She came out now and again to get some fags from the all-night supermarket round the corner. She seemed quite happy in her own way. Happy but hard. I noticed an old scar along her jaw. Some of the men that used to go up to see her, Christ, they were lower life forms, I swear, barely recognisably human. I’m no George Clooney myself, but these guys were headshot. Still, she saw them right, apparently. Most of them would say goodnight to me on the way out, as If I was part of the whole shebang, as if I was some bloke at the Savoy in a monkey suit.
I’d sit there behind the desk, reading old film magazines, watching kung-fu movies on some obscure channel, making notes in my diary when I could be arsed, and getting through a couple of litres of instant coffee, and about six Mars bars. When I clocked off, at seven, Hammersmith looked like a ragged raw arsehole. All the corners were too sharp, the colours were dead, variations of grey and brown. You had to push yourself along through a syrupy atmosphere, or you might sink down like a sack of puke. Those streets were resentful of the people who moved along them and the people were hating on the streets. I’d get back and crash, to be woken about midday by more drum and bass. Always the same. Boom Boom Boom. Meaningless Neanderthal throbbing. A word I looked up, having read it in a library book, it fit: atavistic. I was in the middle of an atavistic universe.
I started saying the word boom to myself. I did it all the time. The boom was in my chest, in my skull. Boom to skull. Boom to heart. I kept repeating it like a poisonous mantra (I tried Buddhism once and realised what a mealy-mouthed con-job it was). Anyway, it was boom boom boom in my room room room, so I decided to construct something. It took longer than I thought, but I like to do things right if at all.
That was back in April, and now it’s there on the floor, with four shopping days left till Christmas, it lurks in that green Patrick holdall. The Interweb served me well, it truly is an educator. I believe I’ve made a quality product. The ingredients weren’t so hard to acquire. It just took a little nous, and the underlying motivation. I can’t go by trial and error, not with this dark beauty. Next door has been empty for a few weeks. He’s been sectioned. What a waste of public money.
This morning I’m going for a little stroll. I’m going to walk into town. Oxford Street. The belly of the beast, so to speak. Babylon in lights. It’ll be rammed with desperate present hunters. It’ll be rammed with every race and creed. It’ll be thick with greed and humourless tight faces, jostling fat bodies, carrying out a meaningless activity which has lost all connection to soul or that weirdy-beardy saviour they pay lip-service to. No connection to our pagan past, our true winter feast, our act of faith honouring the plenty that will return with the sun and the growing light. What it is is the putrefaction of excess of excess, like a million-headed insect shitting itself forever and its own shit being eaten up forever with a smack of the lips of the million heads which sprout more heads from the negative nutrition of the shit they consume. It’s this forever and there’s no escape. It’s its own food and doesn’t need the metaphysical or any blessing. Self sustaining and growing until it blocks out the sun, amen. This human cancer. And, diddums, it wants to save the planet, and kill things at a slightly slower rate, goody! For planet read its own bad self. The planet doesn’t owe it word one. I’m not a crusty, mind, I’m not a tree-hugger. Trees bore me. Nature’s a green yawn. I’ve become what I always was, what I came out of, since I was an egg. I’ve become a black hole.
This morning, at 11:11, this black hole will open up on Oxford Street and suck in the refuse of an atavistic civilisation. Suck it all in until there’s nothing left but a nasty smell wafting over the rubble. I overstate a little, but let the personal become political. I’ll spawn an army of the like-minded. I’m the catalyst with a clue.
Tying my laces now, switching off the heating, putting the marge back in the fridge. A joke I’m playing. I have the phones and hardware primed. Connections have been made. Not a joke. One phone in my puffa-jacket pocket, one in the bag. It’s like some dodgy film, a cut-price thriller, a knocked-off computer game. It shouldn’t be happening, but it is. It shouldn’t be me, but it is. I won’t take the bus, I can’t take the tube. I’ve a mile or three to walk, some of it along the park railings, and I’m going to enjoy every sodding minute of it even if it kills me.
As the man in the puffa-jacket walked, head bent, eyes on each promised step, the holdall he carried grew heavier, the corners sharper as they grazed his shin. He had to stop several times, placing his burden carefully by his feet. A woman with a dog came by as he stood there, panting, by the railings of Kensington Gardens. The dog, a small fawn and white terrier, sniffed at the bag, nudged it with a paw. The woman apologised and said the dog was into everything.
‘It’s okay,’ said the man. ‘Nice morning for it.’
The woman was stout, late fifties. She smelled of cologne, an unusual type, possibly masculine, the man thought. She fed the dog a piece of something invisible from her pocket. The dog looked up at her and hoped for more. Its face was a question.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked the man. He was, after all, exceedingly pale and thin, and for one so relatively young, he was out of breath from the mere act of walking. HIV, she thought. He coughed and spat into the hedge.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s some chest thing.’
‘A lot going round,’ the woman said. ‘You take care now.’ She walked off. The dog looked back at the man three times as they moved away.
He knows something, the man thought, feeling for the bulge of the mobile phone where his ribs were. He muttered: ‘What the hell am I doing? This is insane. They won’t understand. It’ll fall into the generalised mush of the everlasting war on terror, it’ll be a drop in the ocean of terror, no louder than a burp on the radar of terror. Some lone nutter gone off the deep end. A deluded criminal rather than a world-changer. They won’t understand.’
He kicked the holdall, expecting a sudden . . . a sudden what? He had no idea what the brain could realise of an explosion at such close quarters. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps some instant white-out, some permanent black-out. Or might it be a pure dense red, then absence of all colour forever? Nobody could tell you.
Across the road was a Bentley showroom, containing about a dozen cars, mostly the chunky traditional type, a few sporty covertibles, all the cost of a three-bedroom house somewhere in the Midlands. Two bearded men wearing what the man watching considered Arabic dress were looking in the window, one jabbed his finger at the glass. Then they went into the showroom. At once, a stocky, tanned, besuited man came to greet them, shaking hands, scattering smiles. He shepherded them gently over to the white Bentley in prime position of display. The man could not see the price of the car from his position across the road. ‘That could be the better place,’ he thought.
He picked up the holdall and jogged across the road, just avoiding a cycle courier, who swore over her shoulder. The man stood at the showroom window. The cars were beautiful, he had to admit. The level of internal comfort was womb-like. The bulk of the chassis was a fortress. The man had never owned a car in his life.
Both the salesman and his two potential customers turned to look at the pale, in fact rather ill-looking, creature with its face pressed tightly, almost comically, against the window, its breath fogging the glass, a trace of saliva from its lips, smearing it.
The salesman, a man with a discreet name badge, that read: Gareth Heart, Sales Executive, just above his presumed heart, was visibly annoyed. The smallest interference could botch a sale. The most insignificant distraction was death to the closing of a deal. He turned away to pick up a brochure, whispering under his breath: ‘Piss off from that window, street scum.’ Then he returned, offering a medley of smiles and professionally serious expressions to the two Arabic men, one of whom was stroking the roof of the car as if it were a prize stallion. Touching it, coaxingly, soothingly, as though it might bolt at any moment. Seducing it, as the dormant machine seduced him in return.
The man with the green holdall approached the showroom door, angled his shoulder so to push it open. He had a mobile phone in one hand and the holdall gripped in the other, knuckles whitening. ‘For God’s sake, go away, go away,’ intoned the salesman internally, as his eyes followed the man’s every movement, while still managing to provide conspicuous attention to his two esteemed customers.
The salesman had to do something, shut down the problem. Make or break time. ‘Excuse me,’ he said to the men, possibly brothers, who were now both caressing the contours of the white beast, lost in some reverie of white status and casual opulence, speaking softly in their own language. Silken words. Words of a species of dry love.
‘We’re a man down today, sir, I’m afraid. (half-hearty laugh and spreading of hands) Just busy with some clients (incline of pale-blond head). Any chance you could, you could come back another time? (eyebrows, also blond, rise to meet hairline) Ideally, it’s best to ring, for an appointment.’
Every nerve in the salesman was screaming: Get out you wretch, fall out into the street, die there, play with the traffic, be removed by the hands of uniformed men, this is not your domain, it’s not your world by any stretches, I can tell that in an instant and I know you know it too. So stop pissing me the fuck about.
Down his back, his professional line of sensitivity, the salesman felt the delicate entreaty of the Arabic men. They wanted him, needed him, like a guru or a gatekeeper. ‘Another time, okay?’ he said to the man in the puffa-jacket.
The holdall thudded to the highly-polished floor. The man who was not the salesman, who could never be such, began searching through his phone, squinting, shaking his head, paying no attention to the suit. His pinched white face studied the tiny screen. There it was, at last, under the name Release. Now, simply hit the button with the blue telephone icon, and wait for three muffled rings from within the holdall. The other phone would begin to emit the chorus to Stevie Wonder’s I just called to say I love you. Something definite, and a bit interesting, should occur before Stevie reached the word care.
‘Another time, sir,’ repeated the salesman.
The other felt something break in his mind, like a bent stick finally snapping. He breathed in, unable to meet the salesman’s pained stare. He focused instead on the worn perfection of the sales executive’s shoes, the intricate patterning of holes in what must be three-hundred quid brogues; the kind you would resole over a lifetime rather than throw out. He pressed another button and returned the mobile to his pocket, picked up the holdall, and backed awkwardly out the door, all the while locked into the delightful motif of holes in the mildly distressed mid-brown leather.
Like it had never been denied, he was back on his journey, and striding in the direction of Marble Arch. The bag was lighter now, as though it contained no more than warm breath. No more than an ominous desert wind. A dry sour resolve pulsed in his throat as the cheap trainers slap-slapped the damp, leaf-stained pavement.
I’m standing in the cross-flow. They have to move around me. I’m like a stone in the river. There’s no end to them. Their faces sicken me. All that wanting, and those busy little brains calculating. The holdall’s at my feet. I’ve found my spot. Maximum footfall. That’s what the machine wants. It’s still morning but it feels dark.
I barely take them in, the masses, their shapes become more or less the same, some a bit fatter or thinner, a bit taller or bent. A narrow band of colours, after all. Nothing to surprise you. In the end, nothing to write home about. Obsessed with individuality and always failing. Even the disgust has left me now. I’m breathing slowly and deliberately, counting breaths, like Dave the Buddhist taught me. He turned out to be an arsehole, a sexual sadist, in fact. So much for compassion and the Four Fold Path.
Now I’ve come to an edge, I’m worried my act will be seen as trivial. Sure, there’ll be a splash. But any more than a new fizzy drink or celebrity divorce? Buildings will be rebuilt. There might be a little monument erected, yearly vigils for a time, we-must-not-forgets, minor changes in legislation. But eventually it’ll have no significance. The machine will repair itself the way computers do. It’ll defrag.
Steady the Buffs, as my old dad used to say, even though he’d never served a day. If I’m hard of thinking, I blame that sod. He didn’t pass me down a thing, no tradition, no depth.
I’m not an individual, and I don’t need to carry that weight. I am an idea. And an idea runs on its own steam. I’ll give it five minutes then I’ll make that call.
From by the cash machine, about twenty feet away, I can hear shouting. A thick drunken voice. Then I see them. A down-and-out, a small belligerent beggar in the usual garb, is having a go at this tall, slender man in a long black coat. A quality-looking coat worn with a certain panache.
The ruction makes a ruffle in the flow of human bodies. A dramatic space opens up in the city. They’re given a wide berth, as if it was some domestic. A private matter. People look but don’t look. ‘Just five quid, man. Just a fiver. You took out enough notes. Just a five. I’m fuckin homeless.’
When did they start asking for notes? Hit the bastard. Hit the useless drunken bastard. The pisshead’s blocking the tall man’s path; he looks like a surgeon or some World War One officer. That’s what strikes me about him. I hear him say the word please. Then the drunk swings, pathetically, he has to practically jump off the floor to reach for the tall man’s face. And then a graceful thing happens. The tall man catches the wino’s thin wrist. It’s not an aggressive move, nor does it even seem defensive. It appears, and I know this sounds daft, like an arc of controlled affection. ‘Please, don’t do that,’ says the catcher of the wrist. And his voice cuts through the river of the street. It’s pure and gentle and effortlessly strong.
The drunk looks up at the other. His head falls a little, his body buckles. He doesn’t look ashamed, simply tired. An exhausted dirty child. And the other man is keeping him afloat in an indifferent grey sea. They stay in that position for a few seconds, and it causes an ache in me to see them like that. An ache for the perfection of it. The justness.
Then the wrist is released. The men separate like dancers in some country house from another century. They get lost in the stream. It’s over.
Guy Fawkes and his mob came up here, or so I read, once they’d primed the site, waiting for that splash against the sky when it went off. I can’t see Parliament from here. There’s too many new buildings in the way.
I’ve always liked the Heath, and Parliament Hill especially. Round here feels like the country to city dwellers, a toy wilderness within easy reach of a cappuccino. I know it’s a pick-up and cruising spot, particularly at night, but so far I’ve seen no one. Wouldn’t bother me either way.
There’s a house down there towards Belsize Park with a bright light on. Attic window. I’ve brought my bins and I can see a person framed in that window of light. I think, or hope, it might be a girl. A fifth-former, I reckon. Curvy, hair in corkscrews. Good skin—I can’t see all that, but know it. Locked into a pretence of being older than she is; sick of her spotty, over-polite boyfriend (Charles) who never touches her when she wants him to, only when she doesn’t. Tired of her parents’ civilised bickering, of their heavy dreams for her. She wants something to happen. Something final. Something tremendous. I doubt she can see me. But she will, shortly. Or see my last moment on earth. I’ll give her something to write in her pink glitter diary.
I’ve always thought this about spree killers, the ones that top themselves (after mowing down a few dozen bystanders or former workmates) before the law can get to them: why not just do the second bit first, and spare the other poor sods? If I’m fed up with the world, why take it out on anyone else? They’re just as powerless as me in most cases. A few should go slowly and painfully, that’s for sure. They say evil people can’t be happy. From where I sit they do a bloody good impression of it. Still, none of that matters now.
At times like this, you’re supposed to go over your life. Your childhood, family, relationships, jobs, ups and downs, get the long view. I won’t do anything of the sort. The best word I can think of for all that is uneventful. It’s all been more than a bit of a disappointment. Even love. Or what I felt it was. I’ll end on a bang.
It’s dark and there’s a chill. I zip up my coat and push my hands deep into my pockets. This bench has a brilliant view. All those lights. All those souls. Winking away. Miraculous in a kind of ordinary fashion.
The holdall’s by my feet. I’ve had that thing for over twenty years. Well made. It’s been a few places. I’ve used it as a cushion on ferries, and trains across Europe. At one time it contained all I owned. That wasn’t a bad time, as it happened.
Now. Yes, why not now?
I take the phone out and scroll down to the number.
Dials. Dead air, then: Ring one. (I just called) Christ. (to say I love you) Ring two. (I just called) Too late. (to say) Ring three. (how much I . . . ) Ring three. Three. (care)
It’s gone madly still. I wait a while to take it in. Then I check out the girl in the window. She’s got her head on her hand. She’s looking out at failure. She can see me, alright. Failure looms large. I want to be in her room now. No funny stuff. Just to explain a bit about life. About not pinning yourself on any one thing, any one person. About not getting yourself pinned. It’d be a confused ramble, no doubt, but she might believe it, as they tend to.
I stand up and launch the phone into the bushes. I think I hear a voice. Not quite an ouch. Deadeye Dick. The comedy of catastrophe. I give the bag an almighty kick. Nothing. Then I just walk. I walk away. I never was that man.
Before I turn a corner, I take one more look at the window through the bins. The light’s on but no one’s there.
Soon I reach The Spaniards woods. I’ve no idea what I’m doing down here, in the gully among the mushrooms and the twigs. I just want to curl up somewhere dark, low, and warm, spread the leaves over me, and sleep.
Georgina Parker, aged fifteen, of Belsize Park, told the reporter from the Ham and High, after already telling several national newspapers, how, looking from her bedroom window, she witnessed a huge splash of light and colour thrown against the sky over Parliament Hill at about ten past eleven that night. Splash was the word she used. She called it quite pretty in another interview. Then the sound had come, like a boom of thunder, she told them.
The boom echoed around the houses. A few windows were shattered further up the road. Dogs and cats were much distressed. Police were investigating.
Mark Mayes has published numerous stories and poems, and 2017 saw the release of his first novel, The Gift Maker. He also enjoys writing songs.