CONTINENTAL DRIFT Paris - London
The tailor sits feeling through waves of black cloth to make boring clothes for office workers. The task is so easy for this maker of once fine suits, cut and stitched to show the curve of a neck, bend of the knee, slope of the shoulder and fall of glamorous backbones: Water off hewn rock. Catching waists in silk embraces, allowing buttons to breathe, yet be contained. The subtle bracelet of cuffs; design lines of lapels - now replaced by the endless monotony of desk-wear. Sipping black coffee, black and sweet, he recalls the Corniche, the wonderful sweep of the bay, ruined of course by decades, centuries even, of hatred and war, but still there glittering, as the light falls from the mountain tops onto the curve of the sea. Now he sits in a window in the rain. Paris is beautiful, he knows, but the beauty is in the built. It has no blinding light of snow and sea. Deep in his memory it shifts through his brain; a crack, a sliver of Beirut shoreline, his Shangri-La. He nods as the Senegalese go past in their silver suits, pressed ties, immaculate hats, wishes for a moment he could make suits for them instead, with their discerning and exact tastes, their anxiety precisely NOT to look like everybody else. As the rain lifts and the sun attempts to light the yellow streets, the boys move to inhabit the street more fittingly and look askance at the reams of black serge lined up on the tailor’s table.
- What’s he doing? Outfitting a funeral?...
They laugh and pass, doffing glimmering caps as they sashay down the Rue, making for the Boulevard. They adore the city; have no use for things past. In their own all has been crushed to rubble, so they don’t bother to dwell on it at all. Why think of something that has so completely gone? Better to face what’s here and now and available. As they wend their glorious down to the Boulevard St Michel, they are watched by Marie on her way to Chatelet, to woman the ticket office underground. She was glad it was raining, snarls at the venturing sun, hates being down there when it shines. Hates the underground altogether, but has no choice but to work at the fluorescent lit counter, dishing tickets out to disgruntled visitors, handing over maps of metros and local sites. Her hair is beautifully arranged, plaited and rowed, carefully bound back at the nape of her neck, her nails shaped and filed, so that as she sits in her flat yellow-lit box she looks new-made. Has seen the blemishes, bumps, bruises, chipped nails, greasy hair and un-brushed teeth that such a perch can reveal and is determined to defy the light and scrutiny. She has nice colleagues tho’, relentlessly cheerful who periodically stop to chat and lighten the boredom of the box
Just off the Boulevard, 2 blocks in, a bright Chinese with cheap plates of good food, not the usual sodiumized, glutonised, congealed mess, but well cooked nourishing plates, well spiced, well arranged, appetising, The ticket lady often goes there herself after a long strip-lit shift eating comforting, delicious plates served by the taciturn Daiyu behind the counter. Born here, she is reminded every day that she is NOT from here. This annoys the fuck out of her. Started life a few streets left, raised on these inner city cobbles, she knows nothing else. These streets are her streets, these smells, her smells. Anyhow she thinks the white locals smell!! But on the whole she is OK, bounded by the Lebanese and the Senegalese, the Rom along the riverfront, toting wares and rides as hard as they can. And she can cook better than anyone she knows. All these creations, her own. Workers flock here at lunch and early evening for her marvellous mix of flavours. Her eye for colour is truly astounding, to be looked at, tasted and digested. Many a vendor, metro worker, street cleaner, Sapeur, busker and even ancient former ladies of the night, still complete with compacts and stage make-up, congregate round her counter for gossip and….
Born in France to Chinese immigrants who met in Cambodia!!
In London a huge shop window front stretches at the foot of one of the world’s most famous streets. Acres of plate glass, vast expanses, worth the cost of whole blocks of houses; a housing estate, elsewhere in the city. Admiring teenagers look agog at its windows, at rows and rows of neatly stacked flip-flops all proudly painted in bright brand colours, the name of the producer a badge of honour: Jousting medal for the young! Past them a Conchita lookalike floats by with tousled hair, well trimmed beard, in tight fitting spangly skirt and wedged espadrilles. Leaves the flip-flops to the kids, wouldn’t be seen dead… glides on. While admiring impossibly expensive strips of rubber the children chew gum and fail to notice the sun. Opposite a bus lets on a woman shouting into her phone, she looks out of the window and comments for all to hear:
“Just seen Duisha…you know that fat one. She’s living with a guy, man who’s been accused of raping his step-daughter. Yeah she’s living with him. Better watch out!” The endless Precious vein of this monologue is available to all and sundry, asylum gabble!! Past the courtroom where children smoke, waiting for their turn in dock or witness box, waiting to be called. Girls - young, made-up - with Mother, worn and rough as scrape, - in bright red lipstick, Croydon bright blonde facelift hair, huge brawny mottled arms. What sort of oath might she take? The girls, made up to the nines, seem completely unperturbed as witness care staff and police officers hover, keep an eye, aware of the seriousness of the offence and the hard veneer coating the teenagers, as they smoke and hiss in the doorway.
Near the end stop, by the market, two women fight, babes in arms, tumbling in the filth of the stalls, boxes stinking with cabbage, spilt milk, pavement edges dotted with gum and spit, occasional splashes of vermilion; someone’s blood leaking through the dirty streets. Mangos, bananas, totter in piles outside the halal store as the steel band plays old hits to soften the crowd while they wait for buses and action. Sapeur to Pastor, Shanghai billionaires, Amerindian pipers, Roma cardsharps, Swedish singers and cockney busboys shaking grey flannel arses into the air as their bus turns a corner, shaved and sharp, their eyes rake the girls like coals, burning into the curve of a hip, the round swagger of girl, as she swings down the boulevard, as men in hard hats, gorgeous as gods, swing down to the ground from on high, effortlessly, to gasps. Neat lesbians hold hands while gayers in nose rings and wedding dresses deck the department store halls, with groups of slow, amazed tourists trying to take it all in. The buses talk to each other, huffing and hooting at the crowds, swinging immaculately round swish streets as skaters swan- showing off shamelessly - to the delight of most.
Up high, way up, far above the streets are cranes, spiny in the sky, pointers of the new greed: Building ever grander towers for the massively rich. Spiked ones, where the poor can’t rest but, like lepers, must move on, move on…. Perhaps the state should give them bells to warn the rich that poverty is approaching, allow them to climb even higher! Smooth electric gates, air-conditioned cars, concierges and marbled receptions filled with flowers and bright music keep the rich anaesthetised to the poverty devil gnawing at fraying edges. Landlords rake in obscene rents, some even give a part of this money to charity, to help poor kids read in India, children reach schools in Africa, when most cannot read right at their feet. Look up at the glossy towers and wave at all the Mrs Jellabys up there, cheating single mothers and immigrants to slave their souls. As his tenants’ breath curls upwards in the freezing, unheated air of dank bedrooms, alive with mould, he sends fat cheques off to Chennai. In Paris our Lebanese tailor’s landlord Winters in Mauritius. Checking his account for best rates and deposits, as his tenant trundles through stiff black cloth, day after day, dreaming of apricots and Beirut Bay. Not bad men really just lulled by money, the chimera of capital, its sweet whispering and rational greed. Money as magic: The good fairy, the gentle wizard, its sweet nothings beyond the bounds of avarice, calling out our names in our sleep, the latest genie. The pavements of both cities ring with slave money still. Grand hotel de villes, city halls and commercial bridgeheads groan with cash: Dull matt hair turns burnished blonde at its touch, sagging skin plumped and lifted. The ultimate Narcissus’ tool, cheating death and self-recognition, for as long as possible. While the man at Oxford Circus dozes on the street, under the bus stop, the Crack Girls, red-rimmed-eyed, plead for money on the metro stairs and children learn to suck dick for their supper, as a rich widow has her chin and cheeks rearranged to better effect.
Long ago on the Spit at Dakar. With its slave huts waiting on the quay, people tied up in its white cells, chained to the floor, to the wall, not knowing what the next step was. Perhaps they were going to be used as bait? Tied to a wall under the bluest of skies, a mixture of peoples, some high born and cultured, Princesses and Lords, others rejected by their tribe for misdemeanours, handicaps, tempers. Listening to the tide come in and out, in and out, unsure where they were going, unsure of anything except the sheer cruelty of their predicament. Speaking Wolof until thrashed for not speaking French. A lot of them didn’t have any, of course, but were thrashed all the same. God’s own tongue must be spoken The educated interceded, spoke to the provost whose rough Marseille French was hard to understand. He himself press-ganged, drunk on the quay one fateful evening, ended up in Dakar years before – now making a better living than any stevedore at home. His white skin, an amulet against all wrongs. Later the enslaved would sing about him on the ships over, and centuries his name would come up on a beach in Brazil offered back to the waves as Parley. The bogeyman who pushed them onto boats, beat and humiliated them, ripped flesh off their bodies with lethal whips. Born unregistered on a dock in France, dies on a spit in West Africa, remembered in songs centuries later as the generic slaver. Ignorance and prejudice conflating to produce a monster, whose reason sleeps, where reason does not dare: Monsieur Blouet, the devil of Dakar.
In London such transports were underwritten to make sure no owner lost out and that the cargo definitely did. Money poured into London bank vaults, as transports jammed the oceans, whole beautiful estates built, replete with Jane Austen reading families, playing pianos, going to church religiously. Heroines lusting after rich young slavers or drug barons whose lands were cultivated on Opium millions. Wolof can still be heard in metro conveniences and London Club toilets, handing out paper towels and scented hand-wash to the trashed as they crash sweatily into the cubicles.
Paris: Men ring the café, necklacing the street wearing caps on heads, dusters on fingers. Old rubbish litters the rue, piles and piles of plastic bags oozing, while above them tower buildings, elegant and stately as Versailles. Streets are filthy, but facades pristine. Along the boulevard come cars decked and costumed, fitting carriers for Congolese crooners, Cote d’Ivoire colporteurs. They stop to chat to magnificent women in electric blue dresses; strips of itinerant sky lighting up the grey drizzle of the streets. The Seine slugs along green and gooey, it clots under the bridges, as does rubbish under the portals of great inner city palaces. It is a Saturday but almost everything is closed. Even the buskers huddle disconsolate. Tourists wander in gaggles wanting to be amazed, not quite managing it. The city is silvery and wraithlike in the weather. Chinese hairdressers wipe their counters and watch the old woman with a tiny errant dog go by, mincing in the rain, avoiding puddles while adjusting her hat. At the Pompidou Centre the homeless assemble under the vast pipes and try begging off hapless tourists, the buskers smile and wait for the sky to clear, the queues to the museum wind under the showers while people sport umbrellas and shopping bags as they wait on the shiny, shiny cobbles. Inside the guides are grumpy, ungracious, checking tickets with little enthusiasm as they allow visitors to pass onto transparent stairwells.
Congolese mesh in the rain, speaking beautiful African French that lilts and flows through the pompous streets: Ancient honey, sweetening the sidewalk. People, who landed with their sharp dress sense intact, despite sharing hats and shoes to promenade the streets at dusk when the wild things come out and the scene turns playful. Yes, yes the patisseries are run by Turkish tailors and Moroccan jewellers who now serve gateau and chocolat, smiling broadly as their minds zip trousers, place in tiny silver casements rubies/emeralds/pearls, while handing over café au lait and brioche on the thinnest of thin plates clinking with teaspoons.
London: Outside the newly established Black Cultural Centre, on the edge of a grand square, adorned with civic buildings, an old black lady carefully sits down on the grass, she is not badly dressed and her hair is neat, but she has rather too many plastic bags for comfort. She sits where grass meets pavement, not much removed from the shouting drunks who gather under the tree just outside the library, and starts to unpack them one by one. She doesn’t talk to herself, but picks each object out of the bag and places it carefully in a seemingly prearranged order, in a semicircle around her. The Centre, new minted and imposing, is emblazoned with ‘Black Women’s Experience’ proclaiming a unique photo show within, while just outside its gates the other lady sits, and divulges her experience through the contents of her plastic bags. An old spectacles case, remnant of a better seeing past, she picks it up and holds it up like a torch and then carefully puts it back in its place. Rags of ribbon from someone’s hair, she can’t remember now whose, but recalls aeons of ribbon wound tightly round the black, black hair aflutter every time that little girl stood up, jumped, swung around, ran to the door. “Now what was her name, that little thing…very sweet she was always smiling and waving…Was it me? No that’s just too far back to have anything remain, that was such a long, long time ago. My daughter maybe! Did I have a daughter? How can I not remember that? I keep these things with me as they help me sort out the past, where it went, how it flew past and only left me a few objects to hold onto. By putting them in order around me, like circles round the moon I can work out where my life is going, or rather that it is going and not just standing still. Sometimes it seems I have been standing still while everyone else was moving. I just sprawl by the side of the road, like an old dog watching everyone fly by. I now sort out my months, seasons, with objects I find here and there. That way, I can keep track of time, make a route of it with my things, sometimes I just have to stop and lay them all out to make sure they are all still there and life really is going on. As I think it just stops and goes on without me. That makes me endlessly sad, so I worked out a trick to keep it from leaving me behind. I gather things and they remind me that time has passed. I think it’s a very clever idea, it really allows me to take hold of time, slip it through my fingers, I don’t clutch it. I’m not greedy. I just let it flow. I don’t want to stop it but I don’t want it to stop me, you see! So this is what I do to keep it from leaving me behind, out of the flow, like a plastic bag flapping in a tree, useless and unsightly, I don’t want to be that! Can you see my fine blanket, it’s lovely isn’t it? A great deal of work went into it, someone spent time knitting it, attaching the blocks of colour one to another. I don’t think it was me, I can’t remember, it looks too new to be old, so I think someone else made it. Anyway I love it. It keeps me warm, makes me look nice and bright and reminds that Winter is coming now… cold…cold and wet, harder to keep track of time in the rain, it all gets washed away somehow. But my blanket will keep me warm and cheery remind me that there is orange, a very important colour when its grey, the most important one. Now I can’t keep talking to you as I have to put everything back in the right order or time won’t flow for me - as I’ve explained…”
At New Cross, sitting at the bus stop. Tiny with a ginger beard and glazed eyes, clutching an enormous trolley suitcase, black and zipped for business. Beside him waited a tall, beautiful woman, - well dressed, definitely going somewhere with purpose…unlike him. He had never had purpose at all. That’s what his Mum used to say… “What’s the purpose of you?” before throwing him down onto a damp cot. Had been living on the street for as long as he could remember, which wasn’t long. But anyway went from bus stop to bus stop, dragging the case, his claim to the material world. The tall lovely woman could be his Mum couldn’t she? Small as a child almost any adult seemed tall to him. He decided he would try and kiss her, outstretched his stunted arms and clasped firmly round her neck pulling that marvellous face towards his. She yelled and pushed him away, swivelling her head. Closing her face off. Shutting before him like a portcullis. His tender eye rolled in his head, pin-pricked with blood, he lashed her with his rage, shouting all the curses that he knew. Quite a few. His Deptford diction finely honed after years on the streets round here. Luckily the 53 arrived, she jumped on, visibly shaking, cursing loudly at him whilst apologising to the bus for her language. He swore back, waving his short arms at the bus doors but not letting go of the case handle. It did not look heavy - as if crammed with treasured possessions -, but slid easily across the ground un-ballasted, keel-less, trawling through the streets of the city with no cargo at all. But still he would not let it go. It was something he could hang onto at least, something that fixed him to the ground gave him bearing…had seen all those others dragging suitcases day after day, moving through the city with importance and focus. He sometimes tried it from bus stop to bus stop, feeling elated when he reached the next one, a proper bus stop that is, where you can sit down and there’s a shelter not just a pole in the road. Looking for mothers at proper bus stops was, after all, his reason for wandering!
Uptown, on the Museums road; all expensive cafes, smart schools and diplomats, a girl on roller skates go blading by, laughing into a very expensive phone. Long haired and gazelle-like she demands attention and gets it. Unlike the small brown man standing by the railings, hat in hand, an old fashioned, brimmed, black leather hat, proffered for coins on the rich pedestrian corner. Standing, graceful and unabashed, extending his hat in his skinny hand, hopeful that someone, just someone, might dip their hands in their pocket and flick a few silver pieces his way. Beneath the beggar and the beautiful girl, rats nestle.
“Why should we support them? I want to emigrate!” - Cries the old man in the train, the middle aged woman on the tram.
Rain falls on both cities leaving streets gleaming silver. Shiny boxes for so many. In both former servants quarters now house the very rich, while the poor live room by room in crap accommodation with no chance of moving. The courts fill with complaints as tenants rail against each other. Landlords sit at home, counting their money like misers in stories, unashamedly stating markets as their vindication, as if they were a valid reason for anything at all: Too many people – who is going to do the culling? The Europeans are very good at it. Have applied it with amazing success for centuries. Perhaps they will offer?
A postman sells his house. Has always lived there. Was born in it. His parents died in it, but now he is moving. The price of that little terrace gets him a whopper by the seaside, with garden, lawns the lot. He is off. All those streets he trailed everyday, whistling and chatting, helping and shouting, seeing her cry, him pissed, them off. He will leave it all behind for a view of the sea. His house will be bought by an INVESTOR and rented out room by room to Iraqis, Hungarians, Somalis, anyone really who has left a much worse situation, who is happy to share a damp over-priced bedroom in a watery suburb. Blankets float and mould creeps. In Paris people live in cupboards at the top of narrow flights of stairs and catch TB. Then are shunned for bringing disease to the town.
At St Pancras the train comes along fast to stop at the glorious station, seen through windows on the street it glides overhead like an extra in a film. Across the street the silver domes of the new research centre are being put into place, piece by piece, a monumental jigsaw. Glass boxes sail up and down. A group crouch in the park watching curls of barbed wire, ready to slink onto the site and steal whatever they can: Rolls of copper, slabs of marble, window casings, runs of lead, squares of coating, bags of cement. All in black they slip through a side gate, with not much of a lock and lights easily fused, to gather their swag. Wait for sirens to blare down City Road to wheel stuff onto trolleys, pack it all up, cover it, leave it near one of the truck gates. Next morning they appear for work, booted and capped, and drive off in several million pounds worth of equipment onto which they have piled the night’s takings. They will even be waved off and signed out, scribble false signatures into the log and go. A few will stay on site, report the thefts, itemising each roll taken, each bundle, each digger with forthright abandon. Meanwhile the stolen goods will be driven onto the boat train and sent to Paris where a Romanian crew will pick them up and transport them onto the other side of the Carpathians. Everyone is paid in cash (Euros). The remaining crew express distaste and dismay as their private bank accounts fill with money, An insurance premium is paid out, the construction company, which has been paying enormous sums for such an occurrence, gets money back untaxed so, although they really were not in cahoots with the thieves they may as well have been.
On the other side of the road, beneath the smart over-ground platforms of St Pancras, the flashy colourful pipes of the Pompidou, the homeless gather. Above them art and commerce intertwine but for them it is the warmth generated by the trains and the pipes which gives succour.. They gather, filthy, drunk, to lie prone on cardboard. Some fighting. Some crying. Some dead asleep. Skin filled corpses, as over their heads trains, wagons, take travellers, goods, stolen building site equipment, East, over the sea and far away. In Paris they plunge into darkness beneath elegantly displayed rooms of photographs, sculpture, painting and endless reels of film. Neither group sleeps better than the other, both soaked in misery and alcohol. Abused boys, evicted husbands, ex-army, jobless and unloved; they squabble and jitter in the cavernous spaces, under vast public structures. One has a daughter, who will not acknowledge him; another a wife who has erased him from her memory so completely, that not a speck of him remains, and he knows it. Not all are old or ageing, some young just out of prison, borstal or Runaways from homes too broken, mere shards scattered over estates on the outskirts of both cities. Once a month they sterilise down there: station and art gallery - the Nazis are coming they call it. For a few days they cannot sleep, it stinks too much. Industrial disinfectant makes human eyes water and skin burn, but they all come back when it has died down, eager to return to pipes and trains, for the relative warmth and seclusion both places offer. Doss houses exist relatively close by, to both, but you can’t get drunk there, have to be in by 11. And that doesn’t suit most of them at all. So they stay in the relative warmth and plan to get legless. Sometimes, not very rarely, one of them dies down here. Doesn’t wake up…a liver well and truly failed. If at all possible they are thrown them into the canal, with weighed down pockets. Reasoning no one is going to miss an old homeless man…and they don’t. It’s risky tho’, they could get accused, the police have no time for the homeless. Always assume they’re after free board and lodging - which they are – and give them cells which are colder than it is down here and food which is absolutely disgusting. So the consensus is, avoid police incarceration if possible. Both camps have hospitals nearby, if they feel a death is imminent they try and roll the inconvenience as near as possible to them, knowing that some ambulance crew will pick them up, wash them and let them die to the smell of disinfectant before the day is done. The internal organs of the deceased will be as extraordinary as anything shown in the famed art museum above: Liver and spleen expanded, distended, dilated, engorged, stomach wall barely standing, skin dark with grime, fingers blunted by cold and weather, eyes blood-filled, squeezing between pink puffed lids. Unspeakable experiments. Skin of the lower body so soiled and marred by old piss that the skin has discoloured, wrinkled, puckered, folded, making the inner thighs galaxies of gore. Inert stellar surfaces that reek even in death, as if all around had pissed just at that moment, in unison. Everyone secretly hopes that they will die down here to the inconvenience of all, not die humiliated in a hospital bed.
Drink: When the world begins to slant, take on better colours, dances before the eyes, shows off and capers like a mad March hare, a foolish joker, whacky wizard, smiling and beckoning, making the world run a little faster, twirling like a whirlitzer, while you lie back and laugh. All pink, gold, and full of shrieks, of bare-kneed girls. Being alive makes sense again. Alcohol as food. A swig and headaches crumble. Limbs shake and the voice becomes a powerful, proclaiming medium to inform the world of the tumble of thoughts. That plastic flask, so silent and helpful. Ready and waiting. Only have to open it up and pour. No pleading. No shouting: Just sits there quietly, waiting for you to pick it up. The bliss of it.
Under pipes. Trains. Men mutter and roll in alcohol fuelled dreams, flying over oceans under cloudless skies, transported to a soggy Eden while lying on mushed cardboard and concrete. Above them, a few metres skyward, staff scrub station concourses/museum mezzanines with care and attention. Overhead the sun shines through the glass roofed station, the plate glass museum, illuminating every corner, scrubbed spotless, as the homeless stagger through the gloom, blinking, turning to the canal/drain to piss, eyes protesting at the sheer mass of light assailing them. Down in the shadows they have got used to seeing darkly, are frazzled by so much light. A few wish for shades, vowing to keep out of the sun, snatching some off café tables. After being placed on nose of boils and rheumy eyes…no one will take them back after that! The world convinced skin grease is catching, ripe with deposits of ebola, cholera, aids, cancer, plague. So the glasses can be kept. Finders Keepers. That one always works. It was just keeping the damned things once you got them. Drunkenness, clumsiness and drifter theft usually has them by the end of the day. But nice to wear for a bit. While stolen vehicles are driven into St Pancras, nicked sunglasses adorn the head of Vince, as he dances a little dance before strolling off to shit in a nearby copse.
100 metres from the shitting bush, in the world library, professors speculate and theorize, erecting cages of words in which they sit contented, their finely wrought keys dangling at their sides. Each human action can be determined, assessed, classified, predicted. We all act as if some great cog is turning and the grim inevitability of our acts a foregone conclusion! No closer to flight than the poor tethered goldfinch. As Latin squares form around them repeating themselves in each row, exploding over their heads in correct formation. Cognitive hair becomes matted with theorem, as it falls, dissolving onto their scalps, deaf to the plash the old drunk’s body makes when heaved into the canal.
Under the quay at the end of the street, the Roma disabled gather, exaggerating their handicaps for dramatic effect. The Seine sings to them of drownings and duckings, its own gloopy music. The long thin sticks of József’s legs, wispy twigs coated in darkness. Clinging to the mooring hoops he hauls himself up on his meagre legs, clutching crutches he moves slowly along the quay, keeping close to the walls, wary of moss and rodents. The night sky above him is magnificent, cloudless with a slender moon bowing into the river. He raises his hand heavenward to greet it, a fine lean hand, and presses onto the fires, lit and inviting further downstream. He doesn’t imagine any voices or opponents, those he really has are legion: ‘Get the fuck out of here you spastic Gipsy’ – the one he gets most, or ‘Move your rotten carcass elsewhere…Shame you survived’. Taunted since he was a small child and Polio struck, he has developed a way with words so he can counteract the humiliations. He pushes language to his limits, makes it bow to his will so he can tie the sneerer up in knots, bind him fast with words. He has nothing else to fight with. Hobbling along the river not frightened of anything. If death comes under this wonderful sky, so be it. The only thing he has left is his life. Everything else has already been taken. No Esmeralda he, no Quasimodo to look out for him, love him, no matter how monstrous. He laughs out loud as he passes the Ile de cité, he is, after all, monster and Gitane in one. Monstrous and Romantic. Cannot dance or sing but makes words that can, limping along on his spare legs, noticing everything, because he as to go so slowly through the world, he sees a lot more than most: Arab contempt for alcohol, African love of cloth and colour, Chinese surety that they were here before all else, and the Roma smiling, smiling, as they are spat on again and again. He has written it all down in a long elegant hand, arranged in yellow folders. Poems of the quay; fragile and marvellous, tense and worldly, spellbinding and desperate. He does not live in the street or on the quay, as some do, but in a box room, by a lift, very near the river. He has a plug and a mattress, which fits diagonally across the floor. He has no windows but a small pane into the lift shaft. But at least he is dry in here and fairly warm too as the pipes for the house heating go stretching through his lair. All night long the pipes gurgle and cough. Drunk residents return home and piss into the lift shaft disturbing his sleep with smell and splash. But he smokes cigarettes to keep him company and has become accustomed to the sounds, he is glad of a place to lie, a plug for cooking, and the use of an old bathroom at the top of the block for the necessary. Sometimes, when he cannot sleep his joints, legs, are too painful, too swollen with childhood pain and the thin tissue memory of that agony, he listens to the house. Lets it tell him its story, the stairs have plenty to say. He writes the slow unwilling tread of the maid climbing to clean; the quick, eager fleet-foot of the lover up to Rapunzel brushing her hair on the top floor; the meandering hesitant steps of the drunk negotiating the stairs, about to fall any minute; the coke head swollen with cleverness off to party and declaim, or returning frothing and foaming as he rows with the stairs. An old lady, who never uses them, but comes to the corridor to knit on fine Summer evenings and take a turn round the balcony, checking that all is in its place. She has no love for the migrant sleeper in his cupboard, but is superstitious enough not to cross him. He listens to them all coming and going, toing and froing, filling the old apartment block with their loves and hates, their disappointments and triumphs. The children, of course, are fascinated by him. Thin and brown and in a cupboard with sticks to walk with. He can whistle too. He tells them absurd stories about the singing spider in the lift, from whose thread it is suspended: That old, wild spider works all day to keep the lift running, but sometimes, just sometimes, the thread breaks and the lift comes to a grinding halt. Then the spider needs a rest, to gather up strength to produce the next lot of steel string, invisible thread. But all will be well when it starts singing. And. If they listen very, very carefully…they can hear the song of the spider as she works. A light, high-pitched song that most adults cannot hear, but clever children can. They are not surprised he can hear it too. In fact a few of them believe he and the spider are somehow related. He is, after all, dark and thin and hairy, and lives in a corner where no one can see him. József encourages this belief, as it means they will come to him, but not too close!
There is a lady, who hears voices, on the 6th floor. None of them ever say anything nice to her which makes him wonder…She complains about all the tenants around her as if they were whispering rude nothings through the wall and many wish they had, but so far no one has done more than frown at her in the lift. József would quite like to hear voices. Ones that talk, specifically to him. He only gets to talk to the children really and a few itinerants who are usually rough and blunted by poverty and alcohol, have very little to say to him that he doesn’t already know. But although the house wheezes through Winter, rasps through Summer, he hears nothing that he cannot decipher as wind, or rain, or inadequate plumbing. No actual voices disturb his sleep, or talk to him in the dark, he only wishes they did. All he hears are voices on the stairs, people chatting into their phones and the hawkers outside promising life and love and happiness with a new blanket, a broom or knife sharpeners, none of which appeal. He has some cash, he gets a stipend from a poetry review and a disability payment, which just about covers his needs but has no interest in buying things or owning anything really. Before his wife and children were taken, he had a car, a specially adapted car which he could drive entirely with his hands, no feet were necessary, in those days he would go out of the city every weekend, drive out to the coast, to the hills, as far as he could go, letting the children tumble and wander as far as they would, while he stared at the view and wrote and wrote. Greying shore, shining peaks, flat dull gold of the wheat fields. All filled him with expectant joy. He had three children, two boys and a girl, beautiful as the view, and a wife, caustic and clever and everything he could wish for. But they were taken, all at once. Their voices never came up through the pipes, or gurgled in the taps, they had left him alone, un-consoled, only words to succour him. He never saw them in others either, never thought, out of the corner of his all seeing eye, he glimpsed a turn of the head, a wave of a hand, a frill of an ear, like any of them. They were gone and that was that. Never to return. Perhaps the lady who hears voices all the time never had anyone to love, the voices are a reminder of that, a pitiful, distracting reminder that she is unloved, uncared for on the earth, surrounded by voices that pry and peek and tug her hair, that irritate and spy, blowing her loneliness into mammoth proportions, inflating it like an old scraped-out-gut filled with noxious air. József lies in his closet yearning for voices, whilst she lounges in her apartment cursing them. As the spider spins the intervening lift up and down, up and down, singing occasionally for the children’s benefit.
Solomon, born in a teeming house in Tulse Hill. Bags of clothes on the stairs. Various fathers, in and out. Lots of children and a mother who drove a taxi, was careless about childcare. He learned to ride the buses from a very young age and get extra portions of chips from the kindly Turks on the corner. Luckily he had a slew of sisters who took care of the younger ones, so he never had to do that. At some points there was a baby every year. There never seemed to be enough room for all of them. It was not a bad household, he can say that, no one beat him or touched him up or did anything like that, but he was variously neglected. Not in a starving, pee-stained, smelly sort of way. But no one ever told him a story. Took him out. Taught him to swim. Ride a bicycle. He trailed through school remembering teachers rolling their eyes when they saw his mother as she sat in the corridor with baby at breast, toddlers on knee, waiting to be seen by his form mistress. His mother always called herself Mrs but the surname would change from time to time without apparent reason. As she got older, the men came less. But the promise of a UK passport/papers/residency, whatever was dangled, always meant that there were men hanging around, from Jamaica mostly. His mother would announce the arrival of one of these like the Messiah, coming to feed and clothe them in luxury to the end of their days. Gigantic men; kind and authoritative, who would rule with energy and affection. This was usually not the case. Mad rows would ensue, with all possessions of one, or the other, thrown onto the street, screams and tears, and the children banished to the chip shop for food and quiet. In the Summer this was not too bad, they would sit on the bollards and chew in the soft air, the littlest one may even fall asleep on the rough grass by the bins, but in the winter it was no fun at all. Unfortunately, these rows often ended up in reconciliation and another baby, in the meantime the man would move on and Lorraine would go back to cabbying to keep the family together. The girls then took care of the little ones, coming back from school to feed, bathe and put to sleep the baby while Mum went off on the evening shift. She enjoyed driving around, met people and felt her life was not so housebound, doing this work. Not so her kids, who were bound to come home and stay there almost every night. Solomon liked his sitter sisters. They had, after all, brought him up more fairly and squarely than his mum, but when he went to other friends who had homes and bicycles and meals, where everyone sat down at a table together to eat and talk, he felt numb. At school because he was quiet and malleable he was not paid attention to, other kids made their mark, but not him. Slight, with enormous thick lashed eyes, he mostly just wanted to disappear from view, which is what he did more often than not. As he was never taken out or encouraged to be adventurous, he never was. He was not bullied at school thanks to the intervention of bigger, tougher cousins who had been told to look out for him by fathers they dare not disobey. Solomon was swatted through school like a fly and came out the other end none the wiser.
After a failed marriage, dead-end jobs, he found himself homeless. Contemplating the Dead spaces of the city - the walled off, permanently inaccessible balcony; bricked up window; staircase ascending nowhere; steps down to a brick wall. Solomon would look at these bleak spaces. These dead areas and want to reclaim them, give them back to the world. Roundabouts, verges, railway cuttings, station corners, abandoned quays, bridgeheads, old moorings, walkways going nowhere, tunnels dead-ending, the city refusing. Solomon would wander round these spaces, zero-holes he felt he could occupy. A greying slab jutting out from the smooth surface but safely confined, so no one would trip over him, have to come face-to-face with him…But the city’s dead spaces brought no refuge, he was endlessly moved on: C’mon Mate! You can’t kip here!
Manhandled out of his hidey hole. Shoved onwards. All he wanted: A safe, discreet place to settle. He found one south of the river, the perfect abode: A wood crushed between two roads, but big enough to deaden the roar of traffic in the old charcoal forests of yore, where Gypsy encampments had pitched in the charcoal burning days of the city. True, walkers and dogs abounded, but even so birds sing and the dull roar of the city was ignored with ease. Binding willow, to create a light frame thatched with thick boughs of pine needles to thread the rain, funnel it off the roof down to the earth beneath. The estate that managed the wood - nearly all of this city is owned by aristocrats even in the 21st - reasoned that it would be more trouble than it was worth to get rid of him. Anyway he was so discreet, almost nobody knew he was there. So they reckoned better to let him be, could even be useful, put teenage Halloweeners off trick and treating in the woods, lighting fires and generally being a nuisance. Land management reckoned that a tall, homeless, out-of-sight weirdo may be just the deterrent they needed. So he remained there for a good while undisturbed and quite happy. Would rise very early and walk about before anyone came to walk their dog, take a short cut to school. Would listen to the dawn chorus. Solomon became the night ears and eyes of the wood, digs a trench to do his business in, used the taps scattered around a wood which once served the railway that went pounding through, captured by Pissarro many years before as suburban managers made their way to the City. But nature has re-conquered the ground and made it green and wild where once steam and iron prevailed. He was just fine, Solomon of the Wood: Born nearby, fit as a blade, fast as top, too gentle for life. Always wounded, punctured, believing in smiles and soft words like a Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang kid. The Catcher got him every time. It wasn’t that he was simple, just lacked cunning or guile of any kind. Couldn’t lie, didn’t understand why others did, a truly epic innocent but without the funds of Prince Myshkin. Lay on tarps in South London, not on furs in St Petersburg, but managed nevertheless. Listening to the leaves whispering, the grass singing, the trees groaning and the noisy birds, of course, always chatting, shrieking, gabbling and the squirrels spitting, he didn’t have to reply, to explain himself, to any of them. He avoided human beings, hardly saw any of them ever. As he wandered early mornings or slept, baskets of food were left for him by well meaning locals, who knew all about him, were glad he was there, keeping an eye. So he lived for a while in a small piece of woodland, one of the wild bits of London which still exists, the tail end of a royal hunting ground, the hem of an ancient palace which can’t quite be eradicated by planning acts and housing acts, green and brown field sites. etc. Anyway, one that survives by the skin of its teeth around the edge of the capital. He lived in a makeshift dwelling in the middle of royal parks wood. Nobody bothered him. He was tidy, unthreatening and completely benign. Nowhere else for him. Care in the community gone wild.
Next to the fence. Not in the wild at all, high up overlooking the wood, rose a block of desirable flats with residents good and bad. In one, a pair of Shared Psychotic Disorder lovers invented paranoia to cloak themselves in. Spinning pasts for themselves, somewhere between Downton Abbey and The Bell Jar, creating a rich and varied past out of slivers of memory dredged up on rainy afternoons. A story rich in detail and fantastic elements, a fable flourishing from brussel sprouts and suburbia. Lying in bed, feeding their madness, spooning it up day after day, smearing themselves in horror at the outside. One morning the voices in their heads had driven them wild, sent them out of the flat very early one morning. Convinced their neighbours were spying on them, shouting through their walls, disturbing their dreams, they left early one morning and ran to the woods for human-less-ness. And there is Solomon walking through his favourite glade near the golf course, where the beech trees, brilliant with Autumn, shiver golden in the early morning air. His skin is dark with earth, pressed into his skin after years of sleeping on it, it runs through the grooves in his fingers, masks the veins in his neck.
Naturally they spied him, moving tall and graceful through the trees like a dark fawn, his eyes shining, stopping to listen to leaves falling, wind rustling, the occasional tuwit tuwoo and were appalled… A man in the woods walking unsupervised through the night, standing upright under the nightly leaves listening intently…a madman, a danger, a threat… the SPDs ran as fast as they could right out of the wood, back to their bed and lay there shivering.
Later in the day, when the sun had lit all corners of the woods and Solomon was gently sleeping, dreaming of his night-time meanders, they rang a number of agencies to decry, complain, tip off, warn, report, imply and insinuate about the dark, solitary man in the woods. They imagined him crawling up the bricks, a latter-day vampire, gripping onto the smooth walls with spider-like-ease. Making it up to the 6th floor without trouble and peering in at them. Clawing the glass with his long, thin, brown hands. They closed the curtains tight and lay in bed shaking, unable to move much except to tap out emails to the relevant authorities as quick as they could. That afternoon Solomon was picked up the police. Dragged out of his shelter and taken in. Nobody really wanted to do it. Knew perfectly well that he was no threat, but when two well-to-do ladies feared for their lives there was nothing they could do but take him in, caution him and release him to the madness of the city. Solomon did not speak at all, he just looked at them with his sad eyes and decided the time had come to really leave. He had been happy in his glade but knew he could never return, the witches would be out again spying in the morning. Looking for him, so as to be scared, denouncing him from behind their web of disorders, illnesses, complaints, maladies…He would go back to where the river bends sharp and strong when the tide is high, where it flows swift and urgent. An old flight of steps cut into the bank, a once good landing place for a skiff, that at high tide ran down the bank like a dart in deft waterman’s hands, now used as a film set. Solomon knew that this was the place to end quickly and quietly. He dropped into the water like an arrow, straight and sure, the river pulled him under, down it dragged him into its murky, starless depths and swallowed him whole. In a single gulp.
So what do these cities speak of: Solomon peering from beneath dripping trees, the sharp, clear look of József as he drags his razor thin legs over cobbles. The homeless and the weary, who make up both, the thoughtful sadness of the many: The flee-from-apartheid tranny who strolls Clapham in a net skirt and heels, brought up on a Boer farm deep in the veld, expected to herd cattle and disdain Blacks until death do us part ran for his life in 1977 and never went back; the transgender violinist in the Marais, whose mother still wears a wig, and would spit if she passed her. People more closely identified with their cities than with any country on the planet. People who rail against their streets but wouldn’t be see dead anywhere else; people who probably would be dead anywhere else.
The gloss, glamour and painterliness of both: Pavements steeped with the past. Walls scribbled with tales. Rivers flowing with the dead. Shop windows glittering with goods and gold. Linked by geography and history and battles, of course, endless battles. What would European history be without those? Two cities, peevish mandarins, refusing to admit their boat has sailed. All the stuffs in the world. All the stories flowing through their customs houses, so beautifully stolen, so miraculously commandeered. Toothless kings. Still shaking out their brocade gowns, slipping soft leather shoes over bunioned feet, sliding gold bands down lumpy swollen fingers, adjusting sequinned caps on balding, sweaty pates, nodding affectionately at their citizens but expecting utter loyalty, which they get, even in their dotage. After all they can still put on a show, pull out all the stops and fill streets with crowds, bunting, spectacle, phenomenal display.
As Solomon dives past the pier, through waters swelling with hundreds of bones, millions. Even, of souls who have ended up here…So the Seine flows with the bone marrow of young girls, pregnant, cast out. Closing over their swelling bodies, hiding them from judging-prying eyes. Both rivers rich with unwanted wives, babies, advisors, counsellors, and the simply poor. Money was to be made, of course…as usual. Boatmen plying a grisly trade in fishing corpses from the river, selling them to scientific men for dissections, disrobing them, de-ringing them for private gain. Suicides were good for this. The massacred had already been robbed, filched, before they hit the water. The rivers click with bones then, their silt a rich mosaic of them. Boatmen, on both sides of the channel, afloat with special ropes and pulleys, to drag bodies ashore. If relatives turned up to claim body, and goods on said corpse, morgue attendants shrugged “River Matey, river took it, rotted away in the water, taken by the current, nibbled off by fish or worse…” Generally no one argued so they, the rivers, fed and murdered equally, for both.
Russians also clicking in the Seine; Petersburg roulette. They came hot-foot, hastily packed bags, long winds of fur around their necks, pearls bumping in their pockets, fragile silver eggs clacking, as ladies unable to tie their own shoelaces pined. Could not bear uprooting, dislocation, exile: The Bois de Boulogne didn’t have enough trees, the boulevards and bridges not watery enough after white nights boundless skies, the new city smelling of drains, the humiliation of having to wash their own clothes, news constantly skimming across the city of palace brought down, estates burnt to the ground, farms seized, stock left to starve, churches pissed in and no French anywhere just the clumsy buzzing of Russian with its beelike ZZZZZzzzz stinging everything with the new order. Weighed down by jewels and furs these displaced princesses threw themselves into the Winter water of the Seine to rest next to chamber maids in the endless silt, rolling on the bed of that great democrat, nursing the bones of the revolutionary dead, peeved aristocrats and bejewelled suicides. The fish grew huge in those years, stories of monstrous fish gliding downstream fat on the flesh of once fair folk. Londoners and Parisians always drinking water steeped in corpses, century after century imbibing protein from countless cadavers. Slurping Peasant dreams, noble expectations. The Countess pining for sleighs, champagne; the cowgirl for warmth, a kiss on the back of her neck under her heavy mahogany hair; the debtor; the pauper the dispossessed and the exile As the rest of the population press on, these others waver, dissolve, meander and drift. Rivers are indifferent, corpses feed the rivers, rivers water the people, people drink the corpses and piss them out. Plus ça bloody change!
A man stands in the fog by old library railings. Dressed in a dark coat, glasses on the end of his long, thin nose. Bowed down by the fog, crushed by it, even. Waiting at the end of his ex-wife’s street. He has no intention of knocking on her door, but somehow hopes that something will happen if he stands here: She might walk by on her way home, or drive by perhaps. He knows she got herself a car and its headlights will illuminate him and his pain. Lonely and exhausted, all he can think of is to stand there, hoping against hope, that she will see him, take pity on him, envelop him in her fleshy comforting arms, lift him out of the trough that he stands in, day after day. Unable to move forward or back. Up or down. A man in a fog of fatigue. Bereft and exposed. Pining for motherly warmth and forgiveness, he stands there in the cloudy night, in the dank purpling fog, shivering in his overcoat. Curious passers-by stare, but do nothing, he is too well dressed to be homeless, too well-heeled, heeled at all…So is not frightening, merely uncanny, standing there in the fog waiting for attention from a long abandoned wife. Needless to say she doesn’t walk past, drive by, or go anywhere near those railings, that night or any other. Her favourite route home is a few streets over. Much better to approach her flat, from the other end of the street. She never comes this way now. Has got used to living here, may walk past said ralings to use the shop at the very end of the road but, as an organised person, she seldom forgets milk, bread or coffee, does her shopping in bulk up the road and, unlike him who is constantly running out of one thing or another, never, or nearly never, runs out of essentials. If he had thought about this for a moment, he would have realised, found another spot, near the church maybe, where she parks the car, but observation was never his strong point. So he stands needlessly, by the defunct library waiting for an ex-wife who will never come.
Two Grande Dames, both writers, face each other across different rivers:
One fingering the pearls she loves, the ones her younger lover likes to slip over his abundant curly head when she is out, and stare at his own, and their, the pearls’, beauty in the old Venetian mirror on her bedroom wall, a gold framed beautiful glass that matches the room curve for curve.
The other fingers a bottle. Not pearls. As she remembers times long past; dancing in the chorus with endless legs and admirers. She pours herself a glass now and then, tips it down fearlessly, gratefully. The one thing in her life that has been true; never let her down. Always producing the same wonderful devil-may-care effect. Every time. Lovers, and bottles, then; the final port of call for both:
One goes to parties with her young man, watches, amused, as vicious tongues wag. She wears expensive and beautiful clothes, elegant shoes, extraordinary jewels which she arranges about herself, an armoury of gems, to deflect criticism, and it works…the young lover gets much more than his fair share, after all men have been doing it for millennia.
The other goes to parties alone. Dressed too in fin-de-siècle finery. The sort that never really goes out of fashion. Her only companion is booze. She does chat for a while, but people bore her very easily. She finds the yen for alcohol greater than that for human company. People make a good background to her hazy, drink-fuelled persona. She is glad they are there, but has no wish to see them, other than as a colourful flat to her alcoholic fug. Sometimes she shouts in the undecipherable patois of her childhood. No one, in the circles she frequents, understands a word of it. This is a trifle sad, she thinks, as the language is rich and nuanced, even when she is being obscene. She berates an old lover for his miniscule penis, laughing that even erect she could barely see it…Screams “Slug!” at a long-time benefactor, and once was sick onto the shoes of a princess, who was gravely beautiful about it, threw them in the bin outside and was driven home barefoot. The next day, said shoes adorned the gnarly feet of an ageing Moll who wore them until the heels fell off in the snow later that Winter.
Caribbean and French, they danced, boozed, scandalised and inscribed their cities. Bringing an outsider’s view to the centre. Tiny and tricky, enchanting and infuriating, they turned things on their heads, made us look at things from their angle. With massive made-up eyes, glittering with mascara, they nodded at each other over their respective rivers, and reached for the most lethal of all weapons, their pens!