Saturday, 22 August 2009

Preparation M

Last week I took my guitar to Soho. Not that anyone asked me to play, but I do prefer it if they don’t. I have played guitar with varying degrees of success for almost twenty years now, but I rarely play in public. Lately, in fact, I rarely play at all.

I went to Soho because I had arranged to meet M. I had rushed from work to the train platform with the guitar strapped across one shoulder - still livid from hauling a gun bag across Liverpool the weekend before, but that shoulder knows how to hunch and the other one has never acquired the knack - climbed on to the train and bought my ticket from the conductor as soon as she appeared.

I love these early August evenings, they’re like sneak previews of the next world.

There are two connections on the way to London and the first one was over an hour late. I found something to lean on there in the platform and watched people in jackets and shirtsleeves work their pagers and cellphones. Not to sound pious - I had mine, of course, and was even tapping away at it to tell M that I’d been delayed, but wary of battery life, I kept it stuck in my pocket most of the time and drummed out rhythms on my thighs while trying not to let my eyes rest on a well-groomed sort in a black jacket with the sort of saturnine countenance that fairly frails the heart-strings, while naturally contriving to steal enough glances for to daydream on the journey home later that night.

There’s a peculiar sense of, well, not community, but spiritedness of some sort that occasionally visits people sharing a train carriage. Such it was at Maidenhead where we were told that the previous hour or so delay was to be blamed on ‘trespassers on the tracks’. Just like a congregation settling in their seats after a hymn, this muted wake of sound rippled through the assembled, the sound of seventy-eighty people all saying ‘tch’ at the same time. You get the distinct and immediate sense in a moment like that that each and every one of ‘em would happily sign a warrant for the driver to full speed ahead and the hell with the consequences, and start imagining what else they’d sign away to get to work on time, or to get home from work on time. I sat back and looked out the window at the passing suburbs to set my mind at ease.

We don’t really do the concept of suburbs justice in England, we haven’t got the space for it. Foreigners often take our popular culture to be defined by its limits, cramped to the point of being impacted. They like it, of course, for the most part, Fawlty Towers and that, like receiving visits from a funny uncle whose paranoia never quite amounts to frothing at the lips, or any other course of action an uncomfortable expenditure of effort away from a wounded slouch, for that matter. A scale model of an English town would make it clear. "Imagine living in a road this far across. Imagine driving to work every day." The model village at Beaconsfield might do it. There should be a replica in the grounds of every foreign embassy to lend the appropriate perspective.

So I watched as green fields gave way to brown roofs and grey pebbledash, as that bright blue sky paled to a softer hue, telephone cable and power lines spanning the view, and thought, what a glorious view, from anywhere in England, you just have to look directly up. Blinkers might be helpful. A lad took the seat next to me, bleached bristles of a no. 1 crop, basketball vest and shorts, gym bag in his lap, skin where visible that exact Gold Blend hue that seems to come from a wardrobe mostly comprising sportswear. Blinkers. Yes, might be helpful.

The last time I saw M had been a little over a week before. One of those long sensual summer afternoons where the air starts to soften in the heat and settles comfortably against you like an old friend. We sat out on the grass counting the bugs. There were things like viridian oblongs and crimson hexagons with mandibles and pinions that I swore I’d never seen before in my life. It is another way that time is stealing away from me, from where I’ve been all this time: there are new bugs now. Upgrades have been made. It’s the kind of experience that makes you grateful to see a ladybird. Not that you shouldn’t be, anyhow.

I found myself hauling upward through the murk at Piccadilly Circus at around a quarter past eight. It was swarmed with glittering crowds as only Piccadilly Circus ever is. You get a different kind of swarm in Oxford Street, or Leicester Square. Those are hordes; governed by common minds, common instincts, recognisable. Piccadilly is different. These are swarms; if they can be said to have minds, purposes, they are pre-mammalian, insectile. Not to say, again, that that is worse. I rather prefer it. And a few well-chosen paces put you beyond the fug of it, in the end of Soho the tourists rarely traipse, curtained storefronts and bored touts, DANCING LADIES and HOT SALT BEEF strobing out in pink-purple neon, stage doors and roads cobbled in old grey muscle.

Again I thought that I could be at home here if I wasn’t so fat, or underdressed, or tired, and kept on, not altogether certain I was where I was supposed to be. It’s an unthreatening place, certainly: the windows might be boarded with haunted sigils of commodified sex as if warding off truthful daylight, but the desperation, such as it is, is comfortably abstract. Everyone here is made for the course of the production, if not strictly made for life. They are the real actors. They can leave at any time.

The guitar was beginning to feel every ounce of its thirty years of age. I shifted it into my left hand. Hungrily I stepped at last into Old Compton Street, crossed to the pavement outside Balan’s, looked around me. In all directions it thrived. Bars didn’t so much spill out onto the pavement as exhale. As circulatory systems go, I’ve seen worse.

I had walked most of the length of the street before I realised that I was holding my breath. M had sent a message ahead to say that he would be at least half an hour late. Not far from here, he had been obliged to stay on at work while my train was delayed, and had now been asked to provide timesheets for the last three weeks, which he was industriously fabricating now, and he was very sorry.

I didn’t want to eat alone, and I didn’t want a drink, couldn’t have one anyway: when all this fiasco was over I had to drive from the train station back to my place. So I found a post to lean against at the foot of the street where it divides into two, and stood for what felt like a very long time. Twice the same person wandered hopefully my way, in a Hi-Viz jacket, no shirt, and asked if I wanted a licensed cab. At least, that’s what I think he said. By the third time of enquiry his skin had turned green, his eyes were bioluminescent, and I was beginning to feel upset. Yes, I could have said, yes I do. This is all a bit immediate and lively for my liking, do you have a place in mind that’s a little more stifling and dejected?

So it was good, in all sorts of ways, when M appeared dressed as though he’d spent the evening playing squash with a werewolf, animated by a earnest sort of apology that I had to closely control myself not to punish. My stomach gnawed at me like a cheap suit. Oh shit, M said, you’re pissed off. I’m alright, I said, trying not to sound too mechanical, wanting not to, and failing. I believe the word is 'grating'.

— Let’s have something to eat, M said. At least let me buy you dinner.

By now it was a quarter past nine. I was thinking of the journey home from here, which would take at least two hours. I danced around the point in as gainly a fashion as I could manage before getting impatient, I realised, with myself, and said Fine, let’s find somewhere.

Somewhere was the café on the ground floor of the Curzon. I took a bottle of mineral water, a sandwich and, underestimating the sandwich, a sausage roll. We ate slowly, talking. On our last meeting I had been obliged to tell M the troubling story of my furthest education, finding then that I couldn’t tell it terribly well, finding myself stumbling to recall details and specifics. (I had established from this that my long-cherished plans to turn the experience into some kind of a memoir that would rightfully come to dominate the misery-memoir market while earning grudging respect from the literary establishment and, in due course, earning me bewilderingly rewards for all the acute suffering involved had, in fact, been rightly shelved for the foreseeable future.) M was troubled by my countenance, which the exchange of my guitar and his money had not greatly elated, and asked a few guarded questions which I don’t recall with sufficient clarity to relate to you.

— All I can say is that I’m still here, I said, that it hasn’t done for me yet.

I drank the water. Cool, clear water, in a tall glass with ice and lemon besides, perfect enough an image to be used in an advert for the stuff. I’d meant to ask for sparkling at the counter, but was distracted when her colleague, bending down, had risen back up and soundly smacked the back of her head into an opened something-or-other. Counters in any sort of coffee shop make me feel bad as I have an unfortunate tendency to fall in immediate and unstintingly painful love with the people who work behind them, so I’ll always get someone else to order for me if I can manage it, and answer without looking up if I’ve forgotten to mention whether I want the regular or the grande. “The one in a cup.” I’m a terrible creature.

M was musing that it’d be a lot of fun to live with a terrible creature like me. He has housemate trouble, that much I knew, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad. It was touching. I thought of the stack of pots on the stove at home waiting to have poaching-froth and burned oil scrubbed out of them for the last two nights, and kept my thoughts to myself. To tell you the truth, I had steadily warmed.

— An X-Box would be fun, I said. Or something like that. To play games together.

— Yes, he said with relief, and described other possibilities that I can’t remember.

Both of us knowing there was little chance of it happening. Before long we were talking about leaving London, as always, again. Both of us knowing that the future opens out beyond the North Circular into a great darkening sea. Neither of us, I should stress, particularly unhappy.

In the street outside, M wanted cigarettes and I needed to catch my train, the first place to buy them being a So-and-so’s Food & Wine across three lanes of taxis, buses and 4WDs. When we put our arms around each other to say goodbye I made a grab at him and held him tight. It had darkened above, where the buildings gave way. I wished him a safe flight.

I was on the train back home an hour or so later, with the capital crossed and the lights of north London passing me by. The harboured thoughts of leisure and sensuality were forgotten, only two or three hundred brain-cells still lighting up at all.

I had been steadily gathering discarded newspapers since the early evening, toting them around in a polythene Waitrose carry-bag. One Sudoku puzzle I’d completed already, but I had another two papers with me, one of which had four. I was very careful. Before the train left Paddington I had copied down the sequence of stops into the margin of my paper, and checked it each time we came to a halt, peering out into the sodium murk. I have taken this train many times, but I also knew how tired I was. The saturnine man of the early evening was very far from my thoughts, where he belonged.

Sudoku is a curious game. Watching someone confronted with one of these devious little boxes is endlessly interesting, if you get the chance. There are many who discard a puzzle as soon as they discover they have made a mistake, at that horrible moment where one goes to enter a final ‘2’ in confident strokes only to realise that a ‘2’ is already present and, by dint of having been printed there, entirely accounted for. Suddenly, everything has not worked out exactly as planned. “Oh well, so much for that. It’s too much trouble.”

Perhaps I am egregiously old-fashioned, but this, to my mind, is not playing the game; it's just following the rules. It is rather easier than unpicking stitches from knitting to find the original fault in a Sudoku puzzle, and still not so difficult to fix the original error.

Mostly. Of course, not all mistakes are easily rectified, knitting notwithstanding. I had some sort of a moral in mind when I began to write this, for instance, except I’m damned if I can remember where I put the thing.