This was the first short story I wrote.
I sat down, wrote it (well I sat down a few times) and wrote it. It came out of me relatively quickly. It was not easy, but it flowed. Anyway I sent it off to a magazine called Smoke.
The chap read it and said, yeah, he would publish it. And I thought, ok this is going to be fine. Ha.
Check out Smoke – its a quirky and rather superb slice of London writing published sporadically, the way things used to be.
As the bus pulled away from the stop they call “High Trees” on the road they call Tulse Hill which is in Tulse Hill (where Dulwich Motors can be found), I began to relax a little. I always do around there because it seems like West Norwood is putting itself behind me once again.
I had only been over there a couple of times since it happened.
Two guys got on and sat down in the seat in front of me. They were in their late twenties, I would say. Just reaching that point when you are too old to be young but too young to be old. They didn’t look as if this was on their minds. They were dressed in what my dad would have called sportswear. Probably he would have said very natty sportswear. He would have been off the mark with these two. Tracksuits which hadn’t seen the inside of a sports hall, trainers that looked days old, and baseball caps. Everything was new, pristine and gleaming. “Box-fresh”, I think is the phrase. They looked as if they would have put it that way. They looked as if that mattered to them. I wished they had sat somewhere else. There was, after all, plenty of room. But I wouldn’t move. That would be stupid.
There are rules. I know that better than most.
As we sat on Tulse Hill waiting for the oncoming traffic to filter past I noticed that they wore their caps very tightly. Like they had pulled those little tabs at the back one notch too far. I imagined the tabs would leave welts when they took the caps off. I could see the marks. I could see them in my head. I imagined them red and in the shape of the plastic tab. An elongated red C against pale flesh that would fade with time. But in no time at all, really.
I looked out at the trees and wondered how long it could take this bus to move up one road – Tulse Hill.
Which comes after West Norwood and before Brixton.
Brixton for the tube, and away.
They had each picked up a copy of a free paper – London Lite and The London Paper – and were now reading them quietly. As I wondered why it was that discarded free papers on buses were more often than not so much more distressed than their underground cousins, I noticed that London Lite was reading his like a book: left to right, page 1, page 2. Like it was his job, and he didn’t want to miss anything.
We were crawling up the end of the hill now, the bus making that low bass note that says it’s digging deep down to reach the top. London Paper was reading the sports pages. He seemed intent on these short brief blasts of violent prose on the never-ending story that is football in and around London. I wondered what was more boring – writing a report of a football match in The London Paper or reading about it – when London Lite spoke.
London Lite: He’s a nice bloke.
London Paper: Gary?
London Lite: Yeah, Gary.
London Paper: Yeah.
He paused to turn over to page 4.
London Lite: He’ll shaft ya, but he’s a nice bloke.
London Paper: Yeah.
As I wondered where exactly Tulse Hill ended and Brixton began and if Herne Hill had anything to do with it, I tried to figure out how Gary managed to be a nice guy and shaft you at the same time.
Maybe I would walk from here. Get a moment’s peace before Brixton proper. Why was there not a moment’s peace when you needed it? Because that was London. That was the way of things. London didn’t sigh, it didn’t make allowances, it was far too busy. It didn’t let up, it didn’t care – it was too busy just being London. Unremitting unflinching unforgiving. It gave no quarter and no succour. And it didn’t even notice – there was no malice or anything. Those were the rules too, in a way. The way of things. London just got on with being itself. Writhing and snarling and breeding deeds of every kind from the quiet and noble to the savage and brutal.
I knew that, didn’t I, better than most?
What did I expect? Sympathy? Not likely.
That’s what friends are for. Apparently.
Jesus Christ, was this bus ever going to get anywhere?
It can be an unforgiving place. Smiles. And it has such a frantic pace. Smiles again. Maybe they were right. Perhaps a spell in the country?
That’s what she had said. But, come on, what was this, Jane Austen?
In front of me London Lite turned to page 6 as we at last got past the roadworks by Bascombe Street. I needed to get off the bus. We were nearly there now, though. We charged through the lights at the junction of Tulse Hill (the road) and Brixton Water Lane (a road with just maybe a lost river underneath). I released my grip on the underside of the seat and watched the red mark fade to nothing in seconds. We fought our way through the traffic lights that surround St Matthew’s church and then oozed past McDonald’s. Someone was shot in there. Killed in a McDonald’s, for the love of God.
I looked across at the tube entrance.
We alighted together, me and the two guys. Out into the spinning, cacophonous carnival of Brixton road. I went gingerly but quickly, keeping an eye out as best I could – without appearing to, of course. You need a good head for the rules around here. I beat them across and, just before I went down the steps, I turned and looked back at them standing at the lights.
They looked like two schoolboys on their way home.
I saw that London Lite had taken his paper with him for the tube journey – I expect he wanted to know how it ended.
Inside the station the street’s ceaseless din gave way to the soothing, swirling strings of Strauss, and I wondered when I would start to forget. When remembering would no longer be reliving.
As we sped up the line with speeds only the Victoria line can muster, I found time to laugh at what they had said. And, as is so often the way, it turned over into tears. Moved from laughter to tears. It’s strange what you learn. That they are closer than you think.
We pulled into Stockwell and, as the brakes sighed, I wiped away the evidence. London would always just be London. It would always just be as big and as brutal as life itself.
But I would stay.