Late night stupid story part ii

Second part of story in one of my old zines. Currently working on a couple of new bits of writing but life has been both harsh and busy recently, in many ways. This tale here is particularly jaded, and far too serious. You can read the first part here ….

Part 2. Coldharbour Lane – Brixton end.

“It was a summer night: laughter fell softly: it was the sort of night that if you wasn’t making love to a woman you feel you was the only person in the world like that”.
— S. Selvon, The Lonely Londoners.

There is only so much entertainment a ceiling can provide. I can’t sleep, again. It is my own fault I know, I should not have started watching tv after dinner. Never disturb the insomniac’s bedtime rituals: dinner, glass of rum, hot drink, quick wash, teeth brush, half hour read a book, lights off. But I can’t sleep.

There are many things on my mind, and for so long I considered Brixton to be my new start, my refuge, my “Brazil”. Port of Spain was no longer going to disturb and distract me. I tried to cut my roots. Yet as a wise old dread once said, you can’t cut them roots man they are on the back of your head. You see, a woman broke my heart. Ha ha, yes, it is trite, but let me tell you it was no “vale of tears” I chose to wallow in. It depends on what you call a prison. Is it a vale of tears? Is it an addiction? Is it just a matter of survival – of surviving each day as it comes, ‘by hook or by crook’, as the English say? Well then I retract: it was all three. You don’t know the street my friend, until you have slept on it. You may walk it, but until you have lived on it. . . .

But what am I saying? I never knew the streets, not with my twilit days, in the throes of addiction. All I knew was survival. And baseness. And the surprisingly guileless art of pocket-picking. And finding ways of getting a fix. And then getting that fix. And then finding new ways of getting a fix. And so on. I’m sure you’re getting the picture.

“In the throes of addiction….”, what a way to start! I was no man. They used to spit on me, even old women! It was no use begging for change. I tried, believe me. I busked! I got nothing, not enough any way. Addiction is a downward spiral. But I will not burden you with a lengthy account of my indulgences and transgressions: lord knows I’ve lectured enough times on the damaging effects of crack cocaine to the famished lifeless faces of rehab groups. It bores me. Let me tell you some of my story.

I came to England seven years ago, with a firm desire to write a dissertation on the poetry of Samuel Selvon and the ‘Trinidad diaspora’. But I never finished that dissertation. I cannot even remember if I even began it. I was an ambitious but naive islander when I came over here. My accommodation didn’t work out. I fell in with a ‘bad crowd’, at least, that’s what they seem now. At first it was exciting, a big family. But it descended. Like I said, and bear the image in mind now, a downward spiral. Drugs became our communal obsession: getting high was what we talked about, what we lived for. It was a long while before it became an addiction. For a year or so it was sheer pleasure. The best days and the worst.

I was living on and off the streets for about three years, in Brixton! Ironic as it is I am all too aware, and why I have chosen to return to Brixton to live a more ‘vigorous’ life is a question I can find no proper answer to either, except perhaps I know this place. London can be very alienating. I had a couple of friends still in the area. They were surprised to see me still alive. But so much for that. For to the question you might be pondering, what was an educated man like myself doing living on the streets? I still ask myself that. There is no answer, and perhaps even no use in asking the question. I was virtually deported back home! Deported! I had to keep it a secret from all my family. Only my cousin knew: he worked at the justice department. I lived with a friend of his for a while, Nathaniel, a good man, and that is how I got myself back on my own two feet.

Mr Nathaniel got married, so I had to find somewhere new to call home, and for a while I lived with Nathaniel’s sister, Bridget. It is there, in her little house by where is produced Angostura bitters, that I came to love the woman. In that house and in that woman’s love I rebuilt my life. I started teaching at a local school. For two years it was almost perfect happiness. Then the tornado returned. It seems futile recounting all these things here. Let me blunt: the ugly touch of infidelity smeared the love that grew in that house, blackened it. No. I’ll be blunter. She was fucking another man. He moved in. She kicked me out the day after. For a while I moved back in with my Nathaniel and his young family, but I felt bad living off their charity and goodwill, and so as soon as I had saved up the money, I moved back to England. As you might have deduced, the authorities haven’t noticed that a deported man lives and pays taxes to Her Majesty. I laugh now, believe me, but it is a dangerous life, and I must say honestly that I am constantly watching out for strangers. I never open the front door.

Since then I have been trying to establish fresh a new life well atop of the old. No mentions please. “I have no history”, I tell people. I have even considered changing my name. But I cannot escape what is in my mind. And now, and how bitterly do I taste it! – there is no point. Port of Spain has caught up with me.

I pull myself out of bed and walk to the other side of the room. A bedsit, small I know, but good rent for the Brixton area (well ex-council flat, Tulse Hill) but near enough to the bus stop. Like a few others in Mulberry Court, it is owned by Esther, a fat Nigerian woman who is always far too busy when it comes to essential repairs like fixing the boiler, damp-proofing the walls, or buying in an oven that actually works, but is always fully-attentive and behind your shoulder when the rent is due. “Don’t bother me Mr Smith,” she sneer, “don’t tell me about the washing machine until you’ve paid your rent sir”. The walls were probably a pleasant and nice ‘brilliant white’ years ago, but now successive tenants have all left their own contribution to a speckled and stained near-beige wall, with nicotine patches around the window. Still it’s alright for me. As long as I have bed and roof over my head then that’s a better circumstance than I’ve been in before, believe, and I’ll find myself something a little bit more decent in the future. So I tell myself anyway. Money is not the biggest thing on my mind right now.

There’s something on the desk over there troubling me. It’s a letter from a woman I used to know, the very same woman I used to know who broke my heart, who I know cannot bring myself to name again (I said her name once! Is that not enough?). The memory of her blocks my throat and causes my eyes to sting. How she got my address is a mystery as I have not been in this place very long, but that is not the main thing on my mind as I re-read her short letter again. She says that she has a son back home and I am its father. How she knows this I don’t know, but she says she is sure about this. It was two years ago now that I left Port of Spain: she says the kid is one and a half, which is possible if he was conceived before I left. But I don’t know! How can I be the father? I was with this woman for about two years, but I could never trust that she was not with another man behind my back even back then? This woman, she was full of tricks! She wants money, but she could just be making this child up so I will wire her some money back for the upkeep of this child, when all it will do is resolve her latest financial calamity! She has included a photo too: the boy, smiling, “his farthers eyes”, in blue biro her caption reads underneath the Polaroid picture. I search the photo. Yes he does look like my nephew Wayne, but then there were many men in Port of Spain that might look like me!

I can’t think straight. I need the night air to straighten up my thoughts, and maybe a drink too if there is somewhere open. I put a jacket and hat on and head out towards Brixton. The door slams behind me. The emptiness and historical repetition of my situation strikes me as I descend down the concrete staircase toward the street level, a situation I dare not even think about, so troublesome as it is, that to even consider what to do would necessarily entail me to place a first step on some new and difficult path that would involve me sacrificing a part of my life now, lonely but in control, quiet but happy. My mother too is ill. My brother is in prison. They all want money, they all want me to go see them, but each time I tell them I can’t I’m busy I have no money in London now. Each time I lie to them, but it is with the closed-eye sigh that knows it is free still to step out of its obligations to the world. These burdens of the mind do they never cease? Gone from Port of Spain to escape such troubles and worries for a reason! And now a little boy too, shit. Man I need a drink!

It was a long night, timeless, suspended, in limbo. The moon was hanging so low to the sky like it would fall unto earth, all yellow and puffed-up, a strange sort of moon. From a labyrinth-like network of side-streets and back-streets whose mysteries I was slowly being initiated into, I came out onto the Effra road. There weren’t very much open at this time so I headed down to Coldharbour Lane where I might find myself a something to eat and to drink.

Not many people do walk these enchanted streets at this time, just the wayward and the wretched perhaps – a few, though some yardie boys outside the KFC still, some white boys trying to buy skunk off one of them fellers. Many a drunk man, old Leroy still sitting on a small wall by the library, lost in some wide-eye stare at the bust of Henry Tate, friends with a pigeon eating some bread by his hand, a can of red stripe by his heel; I duck my head low so he don’t spot me and hassle for a little loose change. A young lady waiting by the bus stop, her pretty hair in the wind, just folk waiting for a night bus to take them home. The lady looks lost and sad, maybe a hard day I don’t know. A car hooting away at them drunk men coming out of the Prince Albert now, singing and hollering in the street. A strange tension in the air, like everything feels a little different, even my index finger and thumb which I rub together out of an old and thoughtless habit, even the skin on my fingers feels different. Like something somewhere is going on, something strange and life changing happening to somebody, but not to me. Like the moon I am in limbo, temporarily visible.
A few folk still scratching about. I walk past a hollow-eyed man fishing through a rubbish bin. He looks up at me, a look of familiarity like he know me from somewhere. There is something I recall in his strange wide-eye look, yes, it is familiar, and his red woolly hat too, and his beard, yes, damn it, I can’t remember the name of the man but I have seen him from long back when I was wandering about London sleeping on benches and in parks. It is a friend of Anthony’s. He wants to talk. He recognises me. I know these sort of guy – I was one of them. He will hassle for money.

“ere that you Marcus? Marcus ma bwoi?”, he says, craning his head up towards me, his hands still digging through the pyramid of waste inside the bin. I recalled his voice then and there: Leon, a man who I was good to a long time ago, like so many things. Just off the … by Tooting Bec, we took it in turns, each night one would sleep on the sofa, the other would sleep on the floor. If that person never showed up, well the other would get the sofa. You can see that, even in a squalid place, we used to invent our own home comforts. Anyway one day Leon disappeared, coincidentally with a stash of money of mine I’d kept secret from the world, underneath a broken washing machine in the old house’s creepy pitch-black cellar. “Leon my boy, you look terrible! Wagwan?”

“Ha ha ha”, he cackled toothily. “Is you Marcus? Me ain’t seen you for long time. Where you been?” His hands had now left the bin, and were embracing me eagerly. He stank. I needed to go. I could feel he was already checking out where my wallet was. The sight of an old friend in the street is always an uncomfortable one, but this guy I knew to be dodgy! He’d robbed me once, and one time is enough. I knew a bit of oldspeak would defuse the situation and get me to the shops before they shut with a wallet still in hand to pay for things. I sighed.
“No worry Leon. Mi ere fi likkle while to see a brother. He is dying. Mi come out a prison not long ago. Mi clean. Where you staying?”

He looked at me, disappointed. He could sniff I was lying, but the offer of going to see him would distract him a while enough, at least to catch up an old times, whatever times they were to catch up on. He would also want to get me back on.

“Ha ha ha. I am staying with Pauline in …. Now. See this ring? Cost me a lot of money. We have child now, a little beautiful boy, my son. See look.” From his jean back pocket he retrieved a soiled and dog-eared photo of a little boy, handsome and smiling. He couldn’t have no son, but maybe he lost his marbles. Maybe he thought this was his son. His little brother died in care, drowned in some domestic accident he said once. Said his foster-dad did it. Drugs addle a man’s mind like that. Make him twist the guilt of one thing into some mad delusion of another. His eyes were gone.

“Listen Leon, mi come see you in the next week. I have to go now”. I looked up at him, my voice changing. Now what impulse drives a man to show a dead man generosity I do not know. And Leon was a dead man. He owed too much money to too many people. There was no point asking for my cash off him. Out of my pocket, and out of the same sense of shame and guilt that drives a white man in a suit to give money to a poor man, I pulled out a five note, and with a shake of the hand, shoved it into his palm. I let go, and patted him on the shoulder. “Good luck Leon”. Like the white man, once the shame wore off, I immediately regretted it.

And with that, and the shouts of “where you living now boy? Tick me now? Spare me just a quid for the bus?” I dashed off down the Coldharbour Lane, eager to escape this demonic vision of the past.

Our dreams formed a multi-layered tapestry that cloaked and clothed our ugly lives, shimmering and shivering in the ocean-like expanse of the night sky, just a sickly full moon and my eyes, so unsure. Now only dumb memories rage across my lost thoughts to times like this before. I was feeling it man, feeling the blues. I lit a cigarette. This feeling would be exhaled. I wandered under a bridge and continued down the long and barren road. My thoughts wandered and meandered upon the same paths that they had been this very night. I decided to write a letter to Port of Spain. I would ask for some evidence. I would also say that I was in London, that I was too busy and I couldn’t afford to return to Port of Spain soon.

“Like a painting of a sorrow
A face without a heart”.

The words choked in my mouth. Hamlet, a Shakespeare without a son. I don’t know! I need a drink! Finally I am there –
The smell of chicken, sweet frying meat, enticing as I approached, smelling so good. I was about to go into the costcutter when I saw a white woman outside, looking a little lost, headphones in them ears. “Have you got a light”, she asked, politely, hazily, lacking in all intonation and vitality. Yet her eyes were not glazed, only simply sullied in a cruel smudge of mascara, all run down her cheeks. The lady had been weeping.

“Here you are my darling”, offering the lighter towards her face.

Mercurial, her drifting thoughts contorted ugly, jagged yet angular, twisted inward. Listlessly, she waited around for just anything to happen. Wearily, she sighed inside an empty kitchen, whispers bouncing between the walls, blood on the cleaver, cracks. Cautiously, she hesitated between each moment, wary that quicksand could be mistaken for the beach, hopeless. Electrified, the frisson of conversation, desire, chance encounters, all flared surly, listlessly. Ruefully, she returned to the disregarded circumstances of her reality, baleful, banal.

He laughed first, ostensibly, light-heartedly. She saw something reassuring in his smile. “You lost lady? You look lost.”

She looked around. An N35 careered towards Loughborough Junction. What was she saying? She took a deep inhalation of the cigarette. Delicious, so much needed. He seemed a nice man, his face not quite as old as his general worldly manner. “Am I lost? I think so”. She laughed awkwardly. It was a thing new to laugh about. “Well listen lady, I think I am lost too!” He laughed, heavy-heartedly.

She looked around again. She was speechless. Her chest felt all clogged up, like she needed to throw up, but it wasn’t nausea but something else she was holding back, something far more heavy. A strange music drifted into her ears. It was when she put the besmirched restaurant napkin back in her pocket did she notice she’d started crying again. He was still smiling, though with a generous look of confusion on his face. She stretched together a smile. It was no good.

“Lady are you ok? I may not know you, but, if you forgive my presumption,” and he stammered, unexpectedly, “you have something suffering you on your mind. Some sorrow has written itself on your brain and now, blinded, you cannot see anything.” Her eyes were looking elsewhere. He was losing her attention. “Listen, if you need someone to talk to……well, if there is no one….”

“There’s no-one”, she interrupted, surprising herself. “….ok well I am here, you can talk to me. Do you want to talk?” He offered. Something about the lady’s sadness hung heavy on him.

“No it’s fine. I must be going.” She looked up at him, and then realised once again that he seemed genuinely concerned. She didn’t want to shrug him off, but, it was no good talking about it now, here in the street. She was drunk, and lost, and this man was a stranger. No it was no good. She started again:

“Look I’m alright thanks, I just need a glass of wine and a bit of sleep. I’m sorry, I mean, thank you for being nice. Oh,” she sighed, and sniffed, “I just don’t know anything any more” What’s your name?”

“Marcus. May I ask yours?”

“I’m Emma. Listen, Marcus, would you like to go for a drink sometime?”

“If you would join me, then I’d be honoured.”

“Tonight?” His over-the-top gentlemanliness was ridiculous, quite silly, and disarming. Trusting.

“It’s the very reason I took the air this strange evening!” he laughed.

“The air is strange, I’ve noticed it too. Is beer ok? My place is not far from here.”

“Ok Emma. Perhaps together we will find some truth in this wine, and recover our minds from this sorrow. You
know what I mean?”

“I think so”. She laughed. Remembering, she took off her ring and put it in her pocket.

A yearning for some measurable meanings, blinded by the black and the gold, a kissing insatiable bodily itch, touch, he disappeared again, she woke up in an empty bed, life’s long exile from the womb, never ceases, it never ceases, but no one really changes, we’re all arseholes to someone at the end of the day, mum’s first rejection, her words, overheard it in the dismissive humiliation of the cool kids I tried to impress in the playground, 1979-1990: we were never the first ones, a world without redemption, irredeemable, it’s all over and done now, to tell you the truth we’ve lost forever, oh the bloody story’s ended now hasn’t it? Shit, and I forgot to tell this joke:
A brain went into a pub and said, “Can I have a pint of lager please?”” No way” says the barman, “you are already out of your head”. . . . . . . . .the end.

Late night stupid story part I

Regrettably this story isn’t new, but one of few pieces of writing I’m pleased with. It’s called Late Night Stupid Story, this is the first part. It’s a two part tale about drunk gutter blues.

“Besides, some things are so ludicrous, that a man must laugh or die. To die laughing must be the most glorious of all deaths!”

— E. A. Poe, ‘The Assignation’.

The long and empty night has its own faint, swirling music. It rolls and lollops in the wan silences, swilling, tangling together into that strange flotsam and jetsam that amass between the gaps of those words and images that fill our restless thoughts, tingling and tremulous, listlessly lost.

It is a music that greets us at the point beyond sleeplessness and falling asleep; that taunts us at the crossroads that separate sobriety and sanity from drunken ecstasy and agony and madness. It is a sad and enduring music that forms in the mind only in the complete absence of any desire or feeling or thought about anything really in particular. That it would fall into the category of ‘melancholy’, yes, at least for the stranger or the taxonomist: yet for the weary and all-too-familiar, it is a music of small but occasional consolation. As symptom, it signals nothing.

It is a music that accompanies our loneliness and descends with it; its plaintive quintessence rubs against us as we stare blankly at the texture of a ceiling or the bankrupt print of a vapid book. It describes the view from a bedroom window, fogged-up and drearily familiar, bifurcating an outside world that is but alien space now, no more than the fat and barren landscape of those long and lonely lived-out nights, lived-out over and over again repetitively and uselessly, the old and forgotten stories of lonely Londoners, staring out into sleepless nights. These are stupid and easily dismissed thoughts.

A swig from the mug of cheap, warm rum on the dresser. Perhaps time to compose the thoughts. What are we talking about here? Ah yes, an old saying: “In vino veritas”, in wine truth, or perhaps truth in wine. Appropriate enough: the leaden-hued and excited words of the drunk have been long dismissed both for their apparent absurdity and self-unravelling babble, as for their momentary truths, unsettling and uncomfortable observations that lie under them.

The scrutiny of the drunk, bawling and cursing in the gutter: “could it be me?”, the young ask. “It was me”, an old voice crows, and sparks up a fag, and raises up his can of cider, in order to raise a spiteful toast of the most mocking fashion. The young join him reluctantly, eager to snatch at his spilt outbursts of truth, so that they may procure intoxicating revelations that can be converted to the 6 figure sums of ‘young fiction’. The drunk proceeds, glad of his audience: “to drunkenness! – the cheap and cowardly refuge of the melancholy, bored and diseased! – a psychotic music that rages and roars and charts the beyond! thrashing out of all boundaries!”

Only the young would bother contemplating it, his ludicrous toast, almost romantic perhaps. The two short sketches that follow do not dress themselves as red light parables or kitchen-gutter love stories. If you’ve got to break a person apart to see what strange essence spills out of their guts, then so be it. If you need a scene, let it be this: we’re on Coldharbour Lane. The author says he knows it well. He says he grew up there. For the reader’s purposes, envision it as your nearest high street, one complete with a 24 hour or at least late-night off-licence. The author says he wants us to meet a couple of people he knows well here. He hopes they will demonstrate his point. The first is a woman: she is lost. Fortune has deserted her. Now wine is her only guide. The next is a man: his mind is troubled by some news. What he does not say will be, perhaps, all being well, as revealing as what he does say. Maybe some good will come of it. The author hopes the following sketches will be as entertaining as they are sincere and to the point. Remember, there’s a joke in it somewhere, there’s got to be. Shit – here comes the woman now.

Part 1. Coldharbour Lane – Camberwell end.

Alcohol: why do my troubles begin and end here? These are the wine-stained words of someone who should know better, someone who should long ago have learnt their lesson. But there’s truth in wine, and also drunkenness, and disorder, and savagely all-too-sincere words, and viciosly stupid words, and music, and melancholy, and flirtation, and laughter. And, of course, regrets too, aplenty. Drink is a garrulous guide and a cosy companion into a state of fogged, blissful stupefaction. Recently though, or perhaps not so recent, it’s also been a fixation, a fix even. Well, all people need some sort of a hobby, but a lot of people fail to notice, fortunately perhaps, that it is also very much a way of life.

Read on. A Tuesday night, and it’s pissing it down. I’ve had half a bottle of cheap white wine and a few pints beforehand, and with nothing else to do and nothing else to drink, I’m making the lonely crusade to the 24-hour off-licence a mile away. The air fizzes and burns, broodingly, lethargically: some pain stirs, brews, some tension: some great ugly sulphurous reaction is going on. Across an unusually empty road, a train huffs and wails above me, rattling above Victorian arches converted into garages. A sudden flash of blue, from the electricity of the track, without warning bursts into the atmosphere, illuminating momentarily the sky around me. Something is brewing. Mercurial.

I pass by the demented blue chatter of lonely television sets in darkened bedsits, flashing away to an audience of sleepless pairs of eyes. I’m drunk – even I can tell it. I can smell it, goddamn it. I splutter onto a dirty tissue. A coughing fit begins, bringing up blood. It indicts me. I indict myself? No: I indict the doctor: the bastard should not have given me antibiotics. I cannot drink on antibiotics. I have just a drink and then I take them stupid fucking pills.

The street is swaying like the sea, the asphalt rolling and shifting like a cross-channel ferry. The sky is open, and through the black and the bronze of the streetlamp I can see the silver threads of rain, and beyond that, a distant blanket of white speckles and spangles – the stars we occasionally notice and project dull clichéd sentiments on, like I’m doing now. I’m thinking of the past, which makes me sad, and thinking also of my last can – the reverberating tinkle I hear when I swish it confirms my worst suspicions. I slug it back gingerly as I march down faceless, nameless, deserted suburban streets.

The moments that are so long gone, distant flashes of being in love, or the head rush of those coming-of-age moments where the world feels incredible, and a street-map or park teems with wonderful life, radioactive and vibrating with possibilities. Maybe it’s just the mood of the moment, or the booze maybe, but sad things are on my mind – the very same sad things that are always on my mind in moments like this, that I think about all the time. I tell her, my little sister, I talk to her, you know! I tell her I think about her every day. She’s watching over me now, with my dad and my nan. But even though she told me once – in a dream – to forgive and forget and to move on, I still can’t get that moment out of my head: my sister, dying in hospital with my mum, sitting by her, just shrieking horribly and without stopping. It was just me and her there, mum and me, when the young doctor left with a polite cough. He expected us to pull the plug out ourselves, but how could I do it, it was my little sister you know? I cooked for her, I looked after her when she started school, and she was still a kid to me in so many ways, even after the time when I took her to that clinic to get an abortion. We were just girls, but the world doesn’t wait, does it?

Mum’s hysterics and shrieking were so grating, it was just bullshit – it made me angry, real inexplicable anger, and sadness, and other things, because there were times, so many times when she wasn’t there for her, you know? There were times where it was like she didn’t give a fuck, and now she was like this, and in the madness of the moment I just screamed at her, enough! And then I realised, it was her baby too, her baby she’d lost, and I felt so bad, and she just stopped, and oh god it’s not even worth thinking about at all.

I learnt that pain though a couple of years later, the pain of that loss, just so deep, so horrific, just the emptiness of it, I can’t even describe it, adjectives aren’t there that do it justice. Staring at the fucking hospital ceiling – tracing patterns in the grey foamy tiles, following them where I could, seeing if I could spot some sign from my little baby. I only remember my first miscarriage indirectly – the stuffy white light of the very same’s hospital café, the intense nauseating smell of disinfectant and boiling beef gravy, the taste of cold tea that James made me drink and his stupid lost-boy look on his face, his hands doing all the talking. The last time I saw him. But I try not to think about those times. A new start, new beginnings, a new me, nothing like the old. James later wrote, blaming me for killing his baby. At the time I was on so much fucking meds I didn’t know where I was. “Post-natal depression” – the hardest part was accepting the first two words. I was sectioned for a while. I don’t remember much of it. People stopped talking to me: they didn’t know what to say. No one said anything. It was the silence that was really crushing, the silent social rejection – at least, it felt that way. Nothing can describe that loss, so common, yet so rarely spoken of. Some took James’ side. Even mum said it was my fault: “You shouldn’t have smoked, it’s your own fault, it was your baby!” she crowed, on the afternoon I came back. She was drunk but I knew she meant it. But the world moved on, and so did I.

It’s not exactly a full moon tonight. There’s something kind of elliptical in its darkness: it wants to hide its face, but a crescent peeps out, consoling the few unhappy people that are still walking these streets, expecting to find some sort of vacant epiphany in their bleak and self-enforced deprivation. When I said the off-licence was a mile away I must’ve misjudged the distance, as I’m still ten minutes away. My wanker of a husband is probably in his hotel room right now miles away in some cold soulless Travelodge or Holiday inn, somewhere in the Midlands. I wonder if he can see the same moon, whether he too is looking at it right now at this very moment, if he still feels the way I feel. It’s an unlikely scenario. If he’s not watching some of that underage pay-per-view smut that he’s so fond of, that I had to sit through with him on what should’ve been our happy anniversary, then he’s probably with some unfortunate young East European girl, making the same excuses and apologies, or, if he’s feeling slightly more adventurous, he’s probably getting a blowjob in the car-park, in my car that he fucking stole from me. Just a stupid note, on the kettle. I’ll read it again, no don’t, don’t upset yourself. What’s he saying, that I only see what I want to? Well it was his badly kept secret: he forgot who managed the finances of our joint bank account. Still marriages have ended in worse ways, I’m sure.

We’d had an argument the night before, one of those ravaging arguments that truly exhaust you, perhaps even prematurely age you – full of frustration, angry words, some regrettable, others scornfully meant under the cover of the bilious barrage. One of those arguments that don’t even end, they just run out of steam without a resolution; I take it John didn’t go to sleep afterwards because in the morning when I woke up he was gone. I imagine he must’ve got up and left earlier, maybe just after I’d fallen asleep. On the kettle he had left a fresh post-it note tattooed in a miniscule biro scrawl that ran onto the other side. He claimed he “wasn’t getting enough…”, that “the writing was on the wall”, just bullshit and hollow excuses, that “it’s not your fault, I just need some time-out”, but “I don’t know if I still love you”. Of course I couldn’t agree with him more, but it was all just stupid words now, bla bla bla, maybe it was over I don’t know, I just can’t think straight. No, it was the way that he’d gone about it. I think of mum again and her shrieking – yes, it was her baby, it was her baby that she’d lost too.

It’s easy to lose yourself in thought. I want to get revenge on him but I’m too tired, and besides it’d be pointless. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal to gain in thrashing about like so many friends who married when they were young, before us, whose dinner-parties we used to attend, and whose blazing rows were notorious. How looks were exchanged, certain doleful glares that declare, “I don’t love you any more”, over delayed vol-aux-vents and spilt bottles of cheap chardonnay. I was there when I saw that such a simple and pure feeling like loving somebody could expire and degenerate into the most caustic and rancorous loathing. But you just can’t understand how love can ebb away unless you’ve laboured through the perspiration of marriage, just as physical attraction and desire decline before that. I was there, when I saw that the best a woman could expect from her partner was friendship. Yes I was there, but like so many other things I never thought it would happen to me. And yes, stupid me I’m crying now, but I swear it is not for him. I will not let my mascara run.

Thoughts become too busy, too tangled, too confused, too all over the place – my feelings too, are indeed, all over the place. The same sad, familiar memories make their presence known like poltergeists, haunting my thoughts, mischievously creeping in through the windows of perception, and manifesting themselves as migraines, regrets, and a hankering need for another drink. Out of my handbag I eventually do manage to dig out my portable radio player. The first preset station is magic fm. That’ll do. The feel-good vintage pop tinged with the golden glow of public nostalgia, for late-night parties and a youth locked safely inside the confines of the 20th century – yes, that’ll do nicely. I slacken my pace, and take slow deep breathes – in, 1…2…3…4….. and OUT. Phew.

There’s a strange itch on my wrist that I can’t scratch, it’s an old scar, still sore, sickeningly so. I try not to think about now, I guess like so many other things in my life – like those five years I wasted living in Bristol, 92-98, no six years in fact. I also had glandular fever quite badly at times when I was a teenager, taking weeks and at one time several months off school. Goodbye to all that, all those previous circumstances that I recall which haven’t fixed into my memory. Like that too, cutting was a part of my life I left behind, but true to some tasteless cliché, the reminders are still there to see. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried ointments, creams, treatments usually for stretch marks, but it’s made no real difference. But it reassures me that they’re still there, a part of me from a difficult time that I “survived”, it would be said, if my life were ever made into some awful afternoon radio 4 melodrama. Might sound corny as fuck, but life was a choice I had to make a couple of times. Now how about putting that line in your melodrama! Hire me, I’m cracked.

But no, this is a horrible thought, a stupid thing to think – it’s nothing. Happy songs make me melancholy, so melancholy, not a word I use lightly except to describe a feeling of real heavy-heartedness. It’s not that it’s a happy song itself that makes you miserable because you’re not participating in the collective euphoria, no, it’s more a sadness when you get lost inside the music, or get sucked inside the rhythm and the descending hook of a chorus loop, where in between the melody and the beat there is a nameless plaintive emptiness.

It could just be that I’ve made up a load of poetic bullshit that masks the fact that I’m on my own and I’m drunk and I’m sad, and the only way to alleviate this pain is to totally obliterate it, lose control and fall into a downward spiral of the customary self-pity that usually elicits a note of awkward distance between me and the world. Fuck, what is this nonsense! It’s ridiculous, I shouldn’t be feeling in this way. I’m drunk, I’m free, I’m young, I should be out there having fun. It’s all nonsense. I’m sure there’s a very dark joke in it somewhere, the sort of thing only a witty fool like Joris-Karl Huysmans would snigger at. Yes, it’s all nonsense.

But the world could never understand why people do it – they see the scars too personally, too literally, but also way too symbolically. They don’t see the relief it brings through release, the control it fosters and returns to people who have lost control. Yet they cannot understand it, family, especially; boyfriends, especially – they can’t empathise, they can’t comprehend it, but men rarely understand how women feel anyway. But I don’t want to think on these things. I’m approaching the high street now so it can’t be much further away.

I’m listening that song, ‘On a night like this’, a saccharine tune that always brings out the silly girl in me. The song stirs up my insides – my heart feels tender and sore, heavy and bruised – reminiscent of my state of mind at 17, ‘lovelorn’, such a pretty word. Indeed my heart feels lovelorn now, but my mind is changed: it won’t let me, I’m unlovable, fat, ugly, a washed-up fucked-up drunk. But I don’t want my mascara to run – no sod it, no feeling is worth smudged make-up. Things have moved on, I have moved on. Despair becomes familiar until you get bored of it, and hey being happy is not a selfish thing to ask for. I should be stronger than this. Repeat it, I am only being silly because I am drunk and stupid and bla. . . . .

I’m outside the off-licence now, and to my blessing it’s still open. Two stout moustachioed men glance suspiciously at me from behind the shop counter, before tending to a surprisingly long queue of weathered souls. I find a bottle of wine for under a fiver, a familiar brand that I know at least to be drinkable, and enough beers to keep a 16yearold’s birthday party going for a couple of hours, and I pick out some chocolate too, fuck it. I hand over the necessary change and make my way out into a deserted high street. I walk down to a bus shelter to get some cover from the rain and go to light up a cigarette. In wine, truth, and in truth, nonsense. And so it goes. I don’t think this story has an end, not yet anyway, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words, maybe they’ll vindicate me. I just don’t know any more.

ONCE I was good like the Virgin Mary and the Minister’s wife.

My father worked for Mr. Pullman and white people’s tips; but he died two days after his insurance expired.

I had nothing, so I had to go to work.

All the stock I had was a white girl’s education and a face that enchanted the men of both races.

Starvation danced with me.

So when Big Lizzie, who kept a house for white men, came to me with tales of fortune that I could reap from the sale of my virtue I bowed my head to Vice.

Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around.

Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.

— “The Scarlet Woman”, Fenton Johnson (1888-1958).

Then I realise I haven’t brought out my fucking lighter.

Guest post: From Southall to Space by Kriddy T

One of the best xmas presents I’ve ever got – a zine story about the grim world of 1990s football stars following retirement, involving minicabs, custard, heroin and very very foul-play. Reproduced with kindness here:


Heat the milk

Crash! Wizz! Bang!

Andy Cole spat out his Kenco in perturbed horror “What the bleeding Nora was that?”

It was 10.17am when a deluge of custard entered Andy Cole’s living room via the granite fireplace where he lived with his Dad Peter Beardsley. Peter, or Pete, as he was known to his kith and kin was an affable chap with a penchant for online gambling, meat flavoured crisps and Newcastle Brown Ale.

Andy yelped up the stairs to his Dad’s room, “Dad! Dad! Come and have a look at the state of the front room” said Andy, appalled and astounded as the sea of custard crept up the walls, destroying Andy’s prized signed photo of Syd Barrett in its path.

Oh dear.” said Peter, in voice suggesting he may have been in a situation like this before. “Looks like someone’s in a bit of a pickle aren’t we eh? Not a problem, Andy. I know an Irish lad in Downham who’ll get this milk ‘n egg based mess cleared up.” said Peter in a reassuring tone.

Without a moments pause he phoned up his pal Niall Quinn. Quinn was now a retired cab driver who lived in a six bedroom house he’d bought with money he had laundered in the 80’s, despite being a career criminal, his close knit Irish upbringing meant he was always happy to help a friend in need.

Not todaiy loike Pete! I’m taking Belinda to Shagaluf for the week, y’know how I would Pete?” Niall explained in his thick Dublin accent.

Not to worry Niall, you enjoy yourself. . .” said a Peter in an understanding yet upset tone.

Y’calling me liar ya little bollix?” shouted Niall as he slammed down his phone.

Peter broke down to his knees, with his head in one hand, he began to bawl and howl like a starving badger. Peter was a broken man.

Whisk Eggs and add to the milk

Andy was to leave for football practice that evening with the intention of salvaging what he could from the yellow mess that was his flat when he got home. That night after football practice he visited his friend and colleague Tim Flowers at his Kilburn flat.

Tim was of tall height and could often be seen handing the Eucharist to his fellow team mates to encourage spirituality in the group, he was a devout protestant and a very austere man who spoke with a soft Devonshire lilt. Tim was in an unusually jovial mood that evening, the pair quaffed merrily on White Strike (7.2% Abv) whilst listening to ‘Hall and Oates’ and the latest ‘Blue Oyster Cult’ record.

I must say Tim…” slurred Andy. “You strike me as being in a chipper mood this evening…”

Yeah, you’re right there Andy. Yes I am….” said Tim agreeably as he topped up his Star Wars pint glass with more White Strike. “I’m going in for my photo for the Merlin Premiership sticker album…”“Lovely news Tim, lovely. Yeah, I often have fond memories of being a shiny. . .” said Andy in a sad nostalgic tone.

Tim’s face lit up, he widened his nostrils, raised his eyebrows and exclaimed “Well Andy… They’re making ME a shiny this year!”

Andy looked down at his Green loafers, revolted at the news. A sense of obsoleteness came over Andy. He was now sensing his career was going the same way as his best chum Neville Southall.

Neville was was a large moustached man with a rather dirty sordid past. He had been in and out of psychiatric wards from a very young age and was now living alone in a dank, empty flat in Hornsey where he had a shiny story of his own to share.

Neville was driving around that night incredibly high, something he would often do after smoking heroin with his nephews Gary and Phil Neville, usually at their mum’s three bedroom flat in Stockwell.

Des ‘Da Dealer’ Lynham got into Neville’s car, a strong smell of Roysters escaped as he opened the door. Neville’s eyes were pinholes as ‘Da Dealer’ handed him his fill of heroin. “Cheers Des, you’re a good bloke you know that…” said Neville, glad with the portion of heroin passed over.

Same time tomorrow then Nev…” laughed Des as as he left Neville’s Vauxhall Corsa.

Andy left Tim’s to get to Chicken Cottage before it closed , he swayed from feelings of suicidal pain to white hot anger at his dismay of Tim Flowers being chosen to be a shiny in the upcoming Merlin Premiership sticker book.

Fired up on White Cider and chicken ‘n’ chips he made a call to Neville.

Andy! Jesus wept! Put the knife down you silly sausage!” shouted Neville fiercely. “We’ve all had our custard disasters, I know I have, and as for Tim being a shiny, be happy for him. Remember that howler he let in against Liverpool, besides he probably only got it ‘cos of his position in the Church” Neville continued….

Listen, I’ll pick you up from Kilburn Park Tube and I’ve got a shiny of my own to show”.

Add Sugar, Salt and Vanilla

Peter was now knee deep in an ocean of custard, his poor attempt at clearing the custard by eating all of it was showing no signs of working, he knew from the pit of his stomach that a horrific death was around the corner.

Yeah, I’d be up for going for Sushi”, Andy said, now cheered up after smoking line after line of Heroin in Neville’s beaten Vauxhall Corsa.

Fantastic! I know a nice little 24 hour gaff just off the Holloway Road” explained Neville. “let’s get this custard malarkey sorted. I’ll give you a hand, don’t worry, then we can for a nice bit of sushi, eh?”

Andy sank back into the front passenger seat as Neville turned up the car radio, Rinse FM screamed like a banshee from the speakers. The pair headed through the dirty, unloved street of North London to Andy’s custard occupied flat in Shadwell, arriving at ten past midnight.

Come on, up ya get!” Neville nudged Andy to wake him, with it being a school night Andy was not use to being up past 10pm, that and the copious amounts of Heroin he had been happily smoking from the shiny foil Neville had provided.

Dozy Dora…. I’ll sort this out then” muttered Neville to himself. He zipped open Andy’s tweed satchel and after a brief rummage he came across a set of Andy’s set House keys which were adorned with a keyring of Malcolm X.

He entered the flat, which had a faint sugary smell of calpol and urea.

A large Glaswegian ferret came racing downstairs.

Wot yooz focking daein’ ‘ere pal?”. This was the landlord. He was known in the local area as a bit of a Shaman, a spiritual mystic, people would often comment on his psychic abilities, even being able to predict the order of the bingo numbers at the his Bingo hall in Streatham.

Listen wee man…I got something to tell ye…I think…look…” the landlord voice trembled.

Go on….”

There’s been a mudda!”

Stir into Egg and Milk mixture

Neville prized open the living room door using his Swiss Army knife he was given by Michael Duberry on his 35th birthday. The knife was engraved:

NEVILLE YOU GIT – HAPPY B-DAY! MIKEY!

The knife was brown, rusty and had seen better days, much like Andy Cole. He poked his head around the living room door and took a look inside.

Shit the bed!”, Neville choked and recoiled in horror, Peter Beardsley was face down in piss, shit and Birds Eye custard, custard covered everything, a sinister gloop covered the walls, it had killed Peter, and even more disturbing it had broken their Alba 42” HD Ready TV which took pride of place above the granite fireplace. The flat was a write-off. A tear climbed out from Neville’s right eye, his sunken yellow sockets twitched as he began to sob away in grief.

The large ferret shook his fist at the sky in a furious violent rage “ You focking wee cont! Why Peter Beardsley? Why not Vinnie Jones or sum other wee prick? Why Pete?”

Calm down! Leave God out of this for Christ sake! Pete was a good man, a very good man, we all know that. Anyway, who the bloody hell are you?” said Neville now sitting at the foot of the stairs with the Landlord.

Am Mr. McCoist, call me Ally.” Said the rodent in a reconciled tone. “Listen I’ll get Pete cleared up and you go ‘n let Andy know, sound better from yooz. Please…be gentle on the wee lad, you know how fragile he is. Especially around the football sticker season…”

Neville arrived at the car, opened the door, wiping his eyes with his Stone Island fleece and turned the radio on to wake Andy.

Repeat until smooth

Hold tight da fone line krew! Big up da man like Matt Le Tissier…Shout out to Nigel Winterburn, Ray Parlour n the Highbury Mandem…High for life get me!”

He put his hand on Andy’s shoulder, quickly turned the volume down, setting the Radio from RinseFM to BBC Radio 3, he thought if he was to let him know his Dad, Peter Beardsley, 49, from Hexham, had died in custard, he should at least play a suitable soundtrack.

Andy was sound still sound asleep, looking content and peaceful, unaware of his Dad’s heinous death.

Neville noticed the car was littered with used foil which had now started to turn brown, the used heroin gave off a smell like that of Walkers Smokey Bacon crisps. Not only that, a large amount of heroin had gone missing from his stash which he kept in an empty copy of ‘Jethro – Live in Lancashire ’92’ VHS box.

Mozart, or at least Neville thought it was Mozart, continued to knell from the souped up car speakers, establishing a calm, serene yet grandiose scene in the Vauxhall Corsa.

The Car was old. Quite old. It had been crudely covered in dark purple house paint in 1994 by Neville’s then wife Cheryl Baker after a messy divorce. It wasn’t the best car, but it was Neville’s car.

Andy’s head suddenly lowered, his chin rested on his chest.

Oh fuck…FUCK! Andy! Come on Andy!”

Neville felt Andy’s right hand. It was as cold as a Solero. He lifted up Andy’s eyelids up, his yellow eyes were now rolled to the top of his skull, Neville began to piss himself like a Sheep in shock.

Andy was dead. The onset of rigor mortis crept in, he sharply moved his hand away from the glovebox, his fist was clenching a shiny of himself from the 94-95 season at Newcastle United. A season he cemented himself as a hero, scoring thirty six goals in forty games.

…That was Mozart’s Requim in E minor………”

As the sound of Mozart finished, sadly so did the life of Andy Cole.

Pour Custard into small dishes

Neville Southall began to mercilessly gnaw away at Andy’s thigh in a futile attempt to get high and destroy all evidence of the Andy’s overdose taking place in his purple Vauxhall Corsa.

Southall had lost what was left of his mind.

Armadillo!….. Armadillo!” he belted as he mauled the cold corpse of Andy Cole.

A faint siren began to well up, was this in Neville’s head? Was this a dream? A fantasy?

He continued to chow down the corpse, gobbling it up as it were a lovely Cheese ‘n Onion Pasty from Greggs.

Ally opened the door wearing a pair of cream moccasins and a brown duffel coat he’d stolen from Gary McAllister after a work do, he looked over the balcony at Neville’s car and shouted at the top of his voice.

Ai yoo! You cheeky little prick! You’re focked wee man and I focking mean focked! Ah know it!”

Ally had a sinister streak in him too. He was the sort of ferret that would tear down anything that got in his path if it meant an easier ride, his violent upbringing in Govan, Glasgow at the hands of his father Billy Connolly meant he was capable of anything.

Sprinkle the top with Cinnamon or Nutmeg, if desired

NEE NAW NEE NAW!! NEE NAW NEE NAW!!

NEE NAW NEE NAW NEE NAW!!

NEE NAW NEE NAW!!

NEE NAW NEE NAW!!

NEE NAW NEE NAW!! etc

Neville was fucked. Truly fucked. Well and truly absolutely fucked. Fucked to the absolute. Which reminded him he had a bottle of Absolute Vodka (37.5% Abv) in his glove box… He opened it up and happily drank the contents, with most it going down his fleece and and over his piss covered polyester trousers.

Ally rang the rozzers for the first time in his life, a contingent of Police cars arrived on the scene sixteen minutes later.

The Vauxhall Corsa was surrounded like a pre-pubescent boy in the Vatican.

Neville Southall knew to the untrained eye this could look like a callous murder or even cannibalism, he thought. He looked at himself in the mirror. Neville was covered in Vodka, blood, piss and heroin, he looking like a native of Ally’s home town Govan in Glasgow. The fact he appeared like this and he had the half eaten corpse of Andy Cole sat next to him in the front passenger of his dilapidated car meant he may have to explain himself more thoroughly than normal.

Neville was dragged by his moustache out of the car window by five Cornish Policemen, one of them looking like an Asian ‘Nigel off EastEnders’, they raised their truncheons, smacking him like a ginger step child.

A confused next door neighbour opened the door upon hearing the racket.

Ya rasclart babylon police, leave lickle Neville alone ta bumbaclart!” Mr. Yorke, or simply ‘Dwight’ as he was called by friends was a chap from the Caribbean, Tobago to be exact, he was a very unassuming and fair man, and an avid Pog collector.

Ally was pregnant with anger and hate, still stood outside his door he hurled a house brick at Dwight, just avoiding him by an inch. “Yoo wee buffty!”. Dwight went back in, he’d seen what he’d done to his friend Teddy Sheringham a few weeks back, he knew what Ally was capable of.

Lads. Come up! Come indoors” shouted Ally down to the small herd of Police below.

Six police men entered the flat. They were old fellas. Wearing flat caps with the Metropolitan Police Badge emblazoned on the front, one was even smoking a pipe, they looked like Last of the Summer Wine extras, short stumpy legs, pot bellies and vacant eyes. The police slowly dawdled up the stairs as Neville Southall was continually beaten on the bonnet of his car, the radio still on, this time playing Chopin’s ‘Nocturne In E Flat Major, Op.9 No.2 ‘.

Ally took the Police right up to the living room door, the Police detected a smell of custard, blood and shame.

The door opened, with it came a tide of Birds Eye Custard, Peter Beardsley was still face down, encased in his own mess.

Ally McCoist was not normal. Never had been, he was found as a kit floating on the river Nile where he was later adopted by Billy Connolly. He was a gifted yet violent ferret at school, teachers were always baffled at how he would get top grades at school yet barely attended, preferring to beat people up and sell Meth and Speed. He was cunning, cheeky and he was psychic.

The evil little shite tried eating this poor bastad ‘n all… with custard – the sick fock!”

Mr. McCoist sat the police down and gave his statement. He explained how Neville Southall had tried eating Peter Beardsley but was unable due to his rigorous Northern build, even destroying his whole front room with custard to make the Geordie more palatable.

This was a false statement, more further from the truth than Peterborough is from Pluto.

Bake your Custard

The actuality was, as Andy sweetly sipped his Kenco and his father continually screamed at the Wright Stuff, they were both deaf to the demonic stomping hooves of Ally McCoist and his biological brother Dennis Irwin as they scaled the roof of the flat. Dennis was a small man with a red face, he had little to no friends and could usually be seen ambling home drunk with his pal Darren Anderton from ‘The Dog & Git’ late at night. Both armed with fish tanks full to the brim with Custard they’d manufactured in a local primary school, they poured the whole forty six gallons of hot sweet liquid down the chimney, engulfing the flat.

Ally was in considerable debt, his cab firm ‘McCoist MiniCabs’ was on the verge of bankruptcy and he was in cahoots with a Ghanaian loan shark, Tony ‘The Terror’ Yeboah. No one messed with ‘The Terror’, not even a large ferret like Ally McCoist, he was a man who you would not want to rattle.

The plan was simple. If he could get the flat destroyed without anyone knowing he’d done it, he would gather a large payout from his Insurance company, Norwich Union, and pay off his debts, especially the one owed to ‘The Terror’.

He had tuned into his psychic abilities days before and Ally knew that Neville and Andy would cross paths, and of the horrific scene that would follow. A perfect man to frame the whole dirty act on.

Cool before serving

Seven months had past, Ally was paid out £2,900 from Norwich Union and was given an extra £5,751 in loss of earnings for the time taken off work to rebuild the flat, quite a feat for a Cab company that had been running at a loss of £210 a week for the past nine months.

Neville Southall was taken to the Old Bailey, the judge so appalled by Southall’s abhorrent actions that he decided this was a special case. Southhall was the first man in sixty years to be executed. He remained locked up in HMS Belmarsh for a fortnight before his execution took place, and in this time he grew a beard in honour of Beardsley and lost six stone in weight. Neville now resembled an emaciated Brian Blessed.

The day eventually came. It was reported by the tabloids that no undertaker in England and Wales would handle the cremation Neville wanted, meaning his ashed were to be blasted into Space, thus ridding the planet of his evil.

Neville Southall was blindfolded by the executioner Phil Babb, and put into the electric chair that had been shipped over from the US especially for the occasion. He was administered the last rites by Tim Flowers, as the switch was pulled down by Babb, Neville screamed

I didn’t want sushi anyway!”


the revolutionary conversation

I sometimes think, maybe everything would’ve been completely different if I never encountered her. Who was she? An angel, a late-night saviour of sad souls like mine? I never got her name. I didn’t need to. We talked by the bridge, I bought her a coffee at a 24-hour caff, and we went different ways. That was all. I dream about it still.“ – Hussein Malik, Passages (2010).

 

The problem of talking.

Ideas are viral, passed on by others with entirely different motives through ports, cities, networks, schools, conversations outside pubs, television sets. Ideas are rarely given freely. No. Their origins are forgotten, lost, confused, traceless. Who cares how we acquire ideas. They spread, that’s all. Authorities have always tried to regulate and restrict this flow, from surveillance to social planning, from censorship to support for organs of passive ineptitude.

What dominant ideas define our age? Productivity, wealth-generation? Absolute alienation, so that even tolerance becomes stripped of any social intimacy it might have possessed? We call for a return of the conversation. Not the problematic public sphere as defined by Jurgen Habermas, but a new art of conversing with strangers.

We don’t talk anymore. Reading Hussein Malik’s startling work Passages, we’re reminded that some conversations have the intense power to save lives. The conversation has a distinct social history. It is the start of all human exchanges, resulting in the trade and civilisation which have defined homo sapiens to date. Edward W. Soja poses a new history of civilisation beyond the Darwinian kill-or-compete model, of the earliest cities like Catal Huyuk not being founded on agricultural trade, but a prior agreement of community. But community is founded in conversation. Exchanging stories, ideas and observations with others is the foundation of our work, our friendsh-ips and our social understanding. But unlike speech, which is the power-driven form of communication, conversation must be mutually interesting if it is to succeed, and good conversation will contain humour, generosity, kindness and originality.

Origins of conversation.

For our purposes, we must make several sweeping generalisations to illustrate a grander point. Please reserve disputations for the end, thank you. Cultures are transmitted and manifested orally, with the first writing appearing in cuneiform, administrative and economic records of commodity and labour trade, and later in the language of priests to create or maintain mystified power-systems. Our understanding of writing is based on the findings of the archaeologists, but we have no evidence of early conversation, except stories put to papyrus many years later. Perhaps our ancestors talked about unusual physical features of their livestock or children? Shared ludicrous and bawdy stories about rival tribes, or exchanged useful information and skills to others in their groupings? Argued over whose chunk of stone idol was the biggest and strongest?

We cannot know and the archaeology of conversation is beyond our questioning. Instead we begin with the assumption that conversation precedes and provokes writing, therefore that culture is communicated primarily through conversation, as is the individual’s personality. The vilified Sigmund Freud brought the Catholic confessional into the realm of madness, treating hysterics through a form of cathartic conversation to relieve and exercise unconscious desires. The talking cure is used today, from CBT to conversations with loved-ones and friends – conversations both have working functions but can relieve pressure. So much for the conversations many functions. We ask therefore how can we understand our era through cultures of conversation? Is the art of talking in our age starting to disappear, as we are warned?

In our families or with our neighbours, we observe a decline in intimacy that has also seen the decline of the charged exchange between strangers, with a unique history perhaps illumined by Socrates and the Sophists for the ancients, or in early modern London in the coffee houses and De Quincey’s rambles. The nature of online communities and expression is one with an emphasis on concise headline-like statements and a search for like-minded people, with everything focused on same interests coming at the almighty expense of an encounter with difference – which real social encounters provides.

Yet we are seeing a striking new phenomenon: the rise of the conversation with strangers. This is the one benefit of the earlier forms of online interaction. The internet chatroom brought us into contact with so many different people, and afforded the opportunity to speak on one’s own terms. Two-dimensional internet correspondences and friends were crucial in fashioning a mature sense of self for me. On the internet one is no longer a son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, husband or wife. One is no longer a black male or white female, Jew or Muslim, disabled or guilty, not if one does not want to be. One can be a free persona. This is truly significant, and online conversation was vital for my 14-year old self to work out feelings and ideas with others across the English-speaking world.

But you know this reader, at least I trust so. Our revolutionary conversation can be theorised on the internet but must take place in real life, amongst strangers. We see this already in public locations where a measure of intimacy is enforced, such as the seating on public transport, or the sheer lifelessness of urban centres late at night, except at crowded bus-stops. The revolutionary conversation begins in the non-places of our era.

Don’t I know you? Pained, awkward, serially bored reader, brain anaesthetised in caffeine, loretadine, digital devices, packaged sandwiches and ludicrous hopes that you no longer have the heart to question, unless they collapse into dust or shimmer and disappear like mirages – quiet people can’t talk but they can write, that’s one thing at least. Well my hearts, let’s shift from this history of the conversation and learn exactly how we can talk. It is neither science nor art, but a game. In the process I hope to convince myself that it may well be a good world if you don’t weaken. I despise that statement though, as I despise physical exercise and going to work every damned day. Here goes.

Fabrications

The chief problem facing conversation is its conservative and dull nature.

I’ll borrow a generalisation to illustrate: all conversa-tions begin with small talk, with polite greetings and inquiries about personal well-being. Small talk often moves on to common sources of complaint – in British conversation this characteristically involves the dreary weather. Conversation may move on to a second purposeful stage, perhaps business, exercising desire or reassurance, inquiries, exchanging information. A third stage follows, usually at the point where one agent must depart, where the major partners come to some kind of agreement or resolution on the matter. But frequently conversation is defined by small talk, and frankly this is just not good enough.

Reality itself is a game. We all know this, but the rules have rarely been publicly discussed, save perhaps in mental health, where they plumbed post-disciplinary control to new depths. Like all games, there is great risk involved, but if the prize is life then there is everything to lose. For most, a simple risk-free game is enough. But not for you. That is why you are here.

  • So begin by introducing yourself and your friends under false names. This small fib begins the thrill – adrenaline pulses as the mind works actively to maintain face. Soon you’ll need to perform, embellish, dramatise. Invent your self a new past and occupation, and do this for your friends. Really drop them in it. They’ll hate you at first, but soon they’ll enjoy this too, and you’ll find the game struggles to stop, as your own identity begins to dissolve in absurd characters and egos invented in moments of high intoxication. This is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways of gaming life.
  • Brag about invented and ludicrously impossible pasts. Be a washed-up composer of Wagneresque opera, or a murder-scene photographer, a struggling performance artist (well?). Hear the baleful and the blissfully naive tales of others by introducing yourself to strangers as a journalist for the BBC, or as a sociological researcher. Tell people you’re writing a travel guide on the area. Play by mood.
  • Wear disguises. An example would be a high-visibility fluorescent jacket, which enables the wearer to travel to any location or building without question. Another would be the smoking jacket, slippers and pencil moustache of a dandy. If this is already your style, then opt for a strictly bland appearance of blue jeans and black blazer.
  • Produce highly offensive or pornographic writing under pseudonyms. Perhaps even create works that have the gall to tell us how we might escape this world. Photocopy in great quantities and distribute for free in public places, reading out certain chapters with the aid of a megaphone.

If you find your current life inadequate you can always borrow another. It is nothing less than a case of adjust-ing your persona, your manner. Too quiet, or clumsy, or half-witted, or dull? You can begin by adjusting your appearance. A colourful or ironic t-shirt, or a designer haircut or jewellery item can act as talking points. Tattoos of sailor’s pin-ups or stars. Most people are too nervous about their own impression to really observe or judge you, but a few blatant signals shifts things.

Observations

It would be an insult to the egalitarian exchange of good conversation if we were to leave you with just bare-faced lies. Conversing can be gentle and honest. I’ll supply a recent example of sharing something with a man I encountered, quite accidentally and without any methodology such as the above in mind.

Anyhow, so it was a Southend-in-winter kind of anaemic early afternoon, when there was this ashen man, baggy-faced and celery-lean, wizened and weary as piss-bullied suburban Oak trees. In a melancholic myopia I failed to see him standing outside the old folks’ home, smoking a cigarette against the pale yellow-brick wall, almost athletic with a catch of the moon in his hair, slunk back with a wad of wax with a lemonade tinge. He had that cockney standard issue black leather blazer jacket thing, you know, and a lot of talk about his poorly mum, dementia case. “Too many people are living too long…every time I see her, it breaks my heart…I have to do it, there’s no-one else“.

He shares his suspicions about the staff at the home. I talk about my nan who told me at the back of drinkers’ dormitory night bus to hell or Walthamstow, who knows, who told me nothing less than the entire contents of the universe can be found within the human heart, your very known. Beyond all the mulch of emotions and mouldy days, there is as much evidence of deities at the bottom of bags of Coco Pops as there are in the cathedrals of High Culture, education, fame schools or furniture warehouses.

We exchange pleasantries in the car park. In fairness I should have looked when I swerved round my bicycle into his soft reassuring corpulent flesh, but he only got a broken toenail and a nasty shock, if anything. He asked me one thing before I beat my retreat:

SIR: is it true?

MYSELF: what?

SIR: The way you’re dressed, young man. If that constitutes good taste in this day and age then fuck me, I can’t tell if you are an Arthur or a Martha.

MYSELF: ?

The place where I lost my mother’s only child

There is a word we must understand before we continue: logorrhea. It means an excess of words, an incoherent talkativeness, which we may commonly know of as ‘verbal diarrhea’ or ‘Jean Francois Lyotard’ – messages which deploy many long and difficult words to obscure a lack of intellectual meaning or point.

Conversation is not just an exchange of words. Silence is equally essential to the conversation. Indeed a successful conversation requires a strong degree of self-restraint on the listener’s part, in an exchange of banter we might describe as “batting“ versus “bowling“. Eye-contact becomes the motor of conversation too, and our behavioural experts are today beginning to pay attention to this area – one recent report recommends maintaining eye contact with the speaker, then breaking this contact away, in order to signal to the speaker that you wish to talk.

We must shut up at times as well. Beyond these technical-ities, our theory of the revolutionary conversation demands a strict use of silence. One should be silent for 24 hours for at least once in one’s life. This is primary. Speech must be restrained a little. A quiet partner in conversation invites the speaker to confess and reveal more, helping the exchange to tap through the protective bark of small-talk and reach into the sap of real experience. Laozi and Siddhartha Gautama tell us that we become most wise in our silence. Although no belief can overrule our core personalities, be they loquacious or introverted, if we’re going to blow our minds and explode the anaesthetised expectations of our peers, then an equal mix of bombastic bullshit and Daoist silence are essential.

Agape was a friend of mine

Reader, what are we to make of all this? To fabricate and to be silent, to befriend strangers even when these encounters are tedious or even dangerous? Yes, and none of these. This age understands nothing inside: everything is a code mediated by signs, an international language of faces and brands, a logos of the logo.

Against this I pass to you a weapon, the Greek word for an all-encompassing love: Agape. Unlike the sexual love of eros, or the conditional friendship of philia, Agape is an affirmative love for all life, a friendship with the world. It is not naive. Agape understands that this life is one of often great suffering but it goes beyond this: I am a friend of you despite your faults and mine. Whether you accept this friendship is up to you. I have already made my peace.

We end where we begun, with our conversation with Hussein Malik. The closest thing Hussein finds to an angel in his Passages is Rosa, a woman he encounters on a night-bus. The work ends with their revolutionary conversation, and with Rosa we give the last words here:

For some, the blind, all they see in this beautiful world is the miserable valediction of their ideas. Not me. I want to know the world without reference to anything, without metaphor even, and so I have to talk to people. I have to know. That, to me, is philosophy. And the language of philosophy is poetry. I talk to the strangers in supermarkets, car parks, train stations, you know I like to shock them out of the loneliness these place are creating. The good ones, I think, are relieved by the contact. I talk to God and my mother whenever I have to lose or regain my sanity. I talk to friends when I have nothing to say. And, when it’s something I cannot possibly speak but I have to express, I share it with the wind.“

Halloween story – Feast of the Innocents

I wrote this story a fair while back for another Halloween, but I had to re-edit the original to fit the word-count of a story competition, giving it a different ending. This version is longer and darker, and I think it merits a re-airing. Enjoy the halloween weekend, and be careful what you eat from midnight takeaways…

We had been quite taken aback at the volume of custom at the old —- Arms on the night of All Hallow’s Eve. Trade had been dead up until one hour shy of the witching hour, when a crowd of drunken revellers dressed in garish 99p store Halloween costumes burst into the pub, their loud squawky laughter and hoarse student roar rattling the bones of the old public house, and my nerves too. Nevertheless by half one we had cleared out the last of their obnoxious number, and, having wiped down the sticky table surfaces and piled away in some mouldy corner the great towers of glasses, the dregs forming strange and mysterious maps, I sat down at the bar with the landlady and kissed a warm flat pint of Guinness. It was impossibly vile in that way only Guinness from New Cross can be.

I was tired. With the prospect of attending a dreary wedding in the morning, I gulped down the smooth body of my comfort, made my excuses and hurried out the door, desperate for at least a few hours’ kip. I shut the door behind me. The cold air brought me to my senses, and ludicrously I became aware that the rotten pint was making me feel somewhat drunk! I was about to check my watch when the wail of a bus careered before me: it was the last bus home! Wearily it pulled away, leaving me alone in the deserted high street to curse the name of the Fates. I scarcely knew the area, yet exasperated at my luck, I reluctantly decided to head off in one direction. Surely it would lead somewhere? Then the rain began to fall. And did it: the rain fell like it had never fallen before, its bullying spray battered windows, spoiled newspapers, swilled in blocked gutters. Fearful of its ferocity, I hurried for cover. Sooner or later it would wash the town away, wash the dirty looks off peoples’ faces, turning them into nothing less than festering and jabbering corpses. That is, if there were such souls even crawling these streets. But it was just me. My walk turned into a sprint.

Solace appeared a few minutes later in some neglected tributary off the main drag. It was an old derelict Victorian family house, surrounded in gloomy lachrymose weeds, buddleia peeping through the roof. Three or four stories perhaps, I didn’t care to look. It had a veranda, and that was shelter enough for now. My clothes damp and sodden, I shuddered and got my breath back. I was exhausted. Slumber weighing heavily on my eyelids, inebriety tapping on the doors of perception, I decided to disregard my better instincts and bed down somewhere here. The property was clearly abandoned. I knew it was sheer folly, sleeping inside an abandoned house on All Hallow’s Eve, but I’d done far more stupid things in my life, and was far too sceptical for the supernatural.

The door was locked. Remembering an old secret of the trade, I took a piece of conveniently-placed nearby timber in hand and, positioning my hand through the letterbox, managed to undo the door lock. I slunk quietly into the main hall, and tiptoeing, shut the door behind me. Dozily, I took in only the most brief of impressions of the house, but I was primarily overpowered by the dampness and dustiness of the place. It was as if the tongue of fresh air had never licked the yellow papered walls of this forgotten residence.

Suddenly my senses returned to me with grave anxiety, and I froze in breathless terror: through the door at the end of the hall, leading to the kitchen perhaps, I could clearly see a someone’s back facing me, a woman’s perhaps, but not in the conventional sense. An evil candle emitting a foul green light across the room, radiating through the hall, and melting into the moonlight that oozed through the front door’s frosted window lighted her body. Whether she was talking to someone else in the room, or babbling away to herself, I could not tell, but drawn by a sinister compulsion, the inexplicable sort that drags many a man to great discoveries and even greater dooms, I crept towards the kitchen door, with some hesitance and not a little temerity. As I drew closer I began to trace the syllables of her strange cockney speech. She had voice that sounded like it had been brought up from birth solely on raw onions and sour milk. Truly it curdled the blood!

“It’s all your fault you know”, it began. “I’d’ve never ad to go at ya with me Stanley knife if you’da just kept your mouth shut like I told you to.” I drew ever closer, crouching by a slit in the timber kitchen door, through which I could see the woman, squatting on the floor, her hair and long flapping dress even darker than the dank shadows that festered in the corners of the room. She seemed to be talking to a bin bag. My ear pressed against the timber, intrigued by this unseemly absurdity. “But you just wouldn’t stop ya whinin, would ya, love? I told ya to hush ya gums but you wouldn’t and by god you paid the price. You got what you deserved, you evil little man…no one treats me and my kids like a punch-bag! What you did was evil!”

Stung by her chilling words, I had clearly outstayed my welcome. Quickly I turned to make haste back to the front door, but another voice bubbled from the kitchen, a deeper, gruffer, even more sinister voice. My legs failed me, breath refused me! Aghast, I sat paralysed by the door. The voice appeared to originate from a rather gruesome zombie prop splattered on the floor, a rather life-like skull of a middle-aged man. Soon the words began to sink into some context: “…no wife of mine has got the right to answer back to me…and those orrible little barsets deserved what they got. I tell ya, as long as god reigns over me, no wife nor child o’ mine has the right to attack me…all because…you were too stupid to do what you was told! If little Jimmy hadn’t of sworn at me, his own dad!…he wouldn’t be under the floorboards like e is now. And his stupid little brother should’ve gone back to bed…but no…he got involved…and he got his comeuppance! And I’d’ve had your guts for garters if….I’d’ve got you first! I never knew a wife of mine could be so handy with a stanley knife! Now…are you gonna put my body back together or what?

The woman’s voice returned, and the bickering picked up pace. Certain words peeped out above the morbid miasma, “chopped onions” and, what I think was “a rat ate my eyeball”. It had to be a sick joke. From what I could deduce, the man had been cut up and left inside the bin bag. This had to be some vicious prank. Ready to confront and unmask the scheme of these black-humoured hoaxers, I stood up, my frame filling the greasy window of the kitchen door. I was about to push open the door when I saw a spectacle of a nature truly of the grotesque and arabesque. I quaked. Either paralysed by the cold blood of fear, or ensnared by some masochistic compulsion to bring about my own immediate destruction, I stood there, gaping like a stunned pheasant.

From the binbag in the centre of the room, resting next to an upturned dining table, a mocking hand peeped out, hirsute and bloody. The woman, who seemed more like the undead, was slicing off a section of torso. About an inch deep, the rain-water that had collected in the kitchen took on a sickly red hue. It could not be! I could not restrain a pathetic high-pitched yelp! “WAAAARRGH!”

Whether the bickering sweethearts were distracted, or had not ears to hear me, I could not tell, but at the same moment of my terror, a series of thick and menacing thumps which I had presumed to be my very own slobbering heartbeat, suddenly ruptured loudly through the kitchen floorboards, and, furthermore, two pairs of short stubby arms erupted from the subterranean hell! In less than a second, two filthy and bruised children climbed out from under the floorboards, and now were standing in the kitchen right before me, staring with hungry eyes at the bloody bag of gibbering giblets! And no one was paying a damned bit of notice to me!

“You killed us dad. You stole us from the living world because we said your cooking was rubbish compared to mum’s. We’ve been hungry for a long time since then. Won’t you join us for dinner?” The woman by now was standing by a rather antiquated oven, upon which a frying pan suddenly sizzled to life. “No way! You can’t eat me! I’m your dad!”, yet his appalling cries went unheeded, and together the reunited mother and boys emptied the bin bag into the hungry pan. A doleful scream filled the air, gurgling away as the stringy flesh sizzled from pink to a whitey colour. The head had tried to roll itself out of the pan, but with admirable precision, the younger of the two boys speared it with a fork and plopped it back into the searing stew.

Without even the slightest bit of irony or seasoning, daddy’s guts were plopped onto three silver plates. The undead three sat down to dinner with a most cordial and untroubled serenity, and the tranquil silence was finally interrupted by a few words of grace. They were about to tuck into their stew when the mother raised her head, and with glowing yellow eyes, whispered to the two, “Aren’t we forgetting our guest?” And with that, I realised that my presence had been discovered. Their eyes turned towards me. “Won’t you join us? Won’t you be our daddy now?”

Now I have always been a carnivore, enjoying a kebab or chicken burger as much as the next person, and I would be lying if I said that the porky odours oozing from the cooker hadn’t whetted my appetite. It would be a folly to insult the hospitality of my new family, and besides, they said no mortal could witness this evil alive, unless he had tasted at least a bite of mother’s home recipe breast chops! We all sat down at the feast of the Innocents, and by god the stew tastes so good, I slurped up every last spoonful, yum yum!

Sleepy, I sat back on my armchair, rubbing my belly, and with a content smile, sighed. It then occurred to me that my family had not eaten a spoonful of their stew. “What’s wrong?” I said, nervously laughing, “were you not hungry? I dare say it was a little….rare” No one said a word, but by the wounded glares of their deep and bloody eyes, I realised I had somehow offended them. Had I eaten too quickly, too gluttonously? The older of the two boys growled at me, with a loud reedy roar, full of sickles and malice and bile. “You ate my daddy.”

I laughed, even more awkwardly this time, and scratched my neck. A voice peeped out from me, dumb courageously: “I may have ate him, but I certainly didn’t kill him! That guilty lot falls on your mother, my little angry friend!”

His voice returned, growling, backed up this time in unison by his family, who together stood (had they always been standing?), and drew slowly towards where I was sitting. “You ate my daddy, and now…….we’re going to eat you.”

I had scarcely leapt out of my chair by the time a well-directed Stanley knife slotted itself snugly inside my eye. Suddenly the bizarre chain of events began to feel stomach-churningly familiar, and as my eyeball rolled inside the gaping mouth of mother, I cursed my luck, again…