The madness. It’s how your life becomes defined. In the madness, before the madness and after the madness. Just after the madness, it’s nothing more than hopes and dreams, all in your hands but still far off glimpses of light as you start to exit the tunnel of the period of life which has engulfed all before it. Each and every day you’d wake up and think ‘I’m an addict’, that’s me, that’s who I am, I’m different. You’d be hoping when you had reached the end of the tunnel there’ll be parades and flags and parties celebrating your new found freedom. There are none. Why should there be? You ain’t that different.
People, places and things. People, they’re there one day gone the next. It’s harsh, but that’s just how it is, if you want to exit the tunnel and keep going you’re not going to be able to let those people back on the train. They’ll just take it hurtling in the wrong direction and it won’t just be a derailment this time, it’ll be a crash in the middle of nowhere without an ambulance in sight. There are the ones who aren’t there anymore, you never thought you could become immune to death. Death, so absolute. It could have been you, it should have been you, how the fuck are you still here anyway?
Things? Fuck knows what things are, how do you define a word which encompasses everything, everything can trigger you, everything can bring you back to the feelings you don’t want to feel. Looking at a picture of you stood outside your home, 1985, the tower blocks in the background, they’re things. Things that are now gone, once people’s homes, much maligned yet even those things which others see as bad were just part of the landscape you grew up in, memories flooding back. South Kilburn to the Kilburn Quarter, how very posh.
Places. That’s the hard part. Places hold things, people, memories, good, bad, happy, sad. Happy can morph quickly into sad and then back to happy. Home is where the heart is and all that bollocks, but it isn’t just the heart, it’s everything. It’s the place which shaped you, made you who you are today, the reason you speak the way you do, think the way you do. The heart is too simple. Twenty odd years of your life revolved around that high street, the parks, the shops, school. Heart, mind, body and soul.
You’ve wanted to go home for a long time. But you’d vowed never to go back, you were frightened. Some questioned it, ‘how can you never go back again?’ There’s too many memories, too much hurt. You forget the good because the bad was so bad it painted the flat you grew up in a shade of grey in which no colour can escape. The high street which you walked up every morning to school, early because you wanted to play football with your mates, it wasn’t that high street, it had become the high street you walked down sweating, shaking, staggering, gasping, needing to taste that sweet, sweet taste of horrible, chemical laced shit that took all the pain away.
The man in the shop and his pitiful look. Watching as you count the change you found down the back of the sofa. He looks like he wants to say something to you, tell you you’re wasting your life. But you know that. You don’t need the geezer in the corner shop questioning your life decisions and your inability to accept responsibility for the position you’ve put yourself in. Right now, you hate him because your own paranoia is telling you he’s judging you. Later on this evening you’ll love him, because he’s someone to talk to, a brief escape from the loneliness.
You should be remembering the man whose sweet shop you went into every day after school with your mate to fill up your sticker album and nick penny sweets while he wasn’t looking. The shelves and shelves of junk which you looked at in fascination, the typewriter which you so desired even though you had no use for it. Always wanted a typewriter, a model airplane too, maybe even a…fuck knows what that is but you want it anyway. Happy memories, so quick to wipe away the sad ones.
Ten years it took before you’d go home, ten years before you were ready to face all those memories. What had passed in those ten years? Seven years in Chengdu, six months in India, backpacking around Asia, all your inhibitions gone. You can even speak a new language, them squiggly lines on that pretty little calendar in the local Chinese you used to stare at as a kid, they’re not squiggly lines anymore, words, beautiful words, not that the fella who’s taking your order of sweet and sour chicken gives a fuck because he speaks Cantonese and you can’t speak a word of that.
Sitting on the tube as it pulls into the station, those big letters ‘Kilburn Park’, still shabby, the same smell it’s had since 1984. You’re there again, you’re a kid, your old man next to you holding your hand as you let train after train go by because you want to get on one of the red ones. The red one never comes, so you get on one of the old grey ones, off to see your nan, the smell of fry ups and fudge. Why fudge? Your nan isn’t around anymore, you’d give anything to go back, walk through the busy market on a Saturday morning, sitting down and having breakfast, bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried potatoes, the smell of the Racing Post, the little betting shop pens on the table. Her laugh as the old man says something terrible about the old girl who lives next door. ‘Jesus! Will ya stop!’
We’ll walk home he says, stop in the Rec and play a bit of football. You want to be a goalkeeper when you grow up, spending hours jumping around your mother’s beds pretending you’re in the world cup final and Maradona is through one on one, he feints one way goes the other but you’re too clever for that, snatching the ball from his feet as the final whistle goes. You’ve done it, you’ve won the world cup! All because of those years you spent diving around the bed and your old man hitting stinging volleys at you as you palm them away. Diving around on the shabby concrete in the makeshift football pitch at the back of the estate your childminder lived on.
Tired you walk back home, the old man telling stories of going to football matches, you gazing into the distance at the two empty tower blocks, square windows, something out of some dystopian world in which the masses are thrown into blocks of flats which are characterless blots on the skyline. They aren’t dystopian fiction though, they’re real. No one lives there, they had to move out, asbestos. Imagine what it would be like to be let loose in there? Imagine, a kid with a whole empty tower block to themselves. The king of Westbourne Grove, holding court over your non-existent subjects.
All these memories because you’ve stepped off a train, seen a round sign and smelled the damp, warm air of Kilburn Park station. Maybe it won’t be as bad as you thought it was, why didn’t you come sooner? Bouncing up the escalators, out the door, lamenting the absence of the old girl who used to have a little stand where you’d buy Roy of the Rovers each week. Poor Roy, lost his leg in the end.
There it is, straight in front of you, the home you grew up in. The little flat at the top of a Victorian house, once the home of the rich, gradually chopped up through the years, the tone lowered, chopped up into the chaotic flats of the prostitute who lived next door and the mad woman who talked to herself. Your mother used to tell you the woman next door was skipping when there was a tapping all night on the wall. Funny time to be skipping at two in the morning.
Looking up at the windows, you can see yourself looking down. That little kid who used to look out at the buses parked across the street and wonder where those places they were going to actually were. Mill Hill, Edgware, Cricklewood. Exotic. Well Cricklewood isn’t so exotic, you had to go up to the DHSS and wait for four hours once with your mother and that was shite. Brent Cross, too, that’s a big expedition, rumour is there is a Toys R Us up there but you’ve never seen it. Toys R Us, that mystical, fabled place which only sells toys. Jealous because your mate at school’s mum took him there at the weekend.
You’ve done all right for yourself, you’ve seen the world, you’re on the right path but there’s this little nagging voice which asks you, where did that quiet, innocent kid who looked out the window at buses and was obsessed with red tube trains go to? How did he end up nearly dead less than twenty years later? Always the quiet ones ain’t it? Cambridge Gardens, where the dreams faded and the madness began.
Turn around and up to the High Road, back to 8th July 1990. The old man has just bought you a Coca Cola ball, you’d wanted one for weeks and weeks, your mates all had one and you wanted to be like the kid on the television doing all them tricks. It’s the World Cup final too. Maradona, Matthaus, Voeller. Excitement building as you get nearer and nearer the pub, the estates of Kilburn seamlessly turning into the leafy streets of St John’s Wood. It was here you’d play runouts with your mates on summer evenings. Abbey estate with the strange orange glow shining off the red bricks, almost haunting.
The old boy with his dog is sat at the bar, drinking his pint, staring at the wall. His perch, his home, why was he always here? You’d find that out later on in life. Them pubs. You don’t get them anymore. Big high ceilings, red carpets, wooden stools, the fruit machine, the fag machine and the geezer behind the bar was everyone’s mate until closing time. Packets of cheese and onion crisps, peanuts and a couple of cokes. Listening to your mum and dad talk about things which sounded so important, people you’d never heard of but made you conjure up images of them, most of them were wankers according to the old man. Everyone is a wanker. Remember when the key worker asked you why you were so cynical? There it is, son. It all started in the Drum and Monkey in St John’s Wood.
Reaching the high road, the Old Bell in front of you. The den of iniquity which you were told never to go into. It was a place of myth and legend, it was were the drunks disappeared and never came back out of. They even let the two old boys who lived in the street into that place. The old boy with the black dog, your mum give him a quid once and a tin of dog food. One of his mates was cold one night and lit up a load of newspapers in a squat and the whole place went up. Poor geezer. At least the fella with the dog made it, dogs always make people a little bit nicer.
The high road, where it all happened, where every Friday night was a trip up to Sainsbury’s to do the shopping, the same Sainsbury’s you would stand outside with your mate a few hours earlier. The plastic pound coins nicked from school, put in the trolley, waiting for someone to come along and ask ‘you finished with that mate?’ The security guard watching suspiciously. He’s got your number. The pound coin handed over and straight to the shop to buy penny sweets. No thought to the poor fucker who’ll be rewarded with a plastic pound coin when they take their trolley back.
Sundays were when it was quiet, shops closed, up to church, where you’d spend the whole half an hour, an hour or even an hour and a half, depending which priest, praying it’ll end quickly. If it’s that wanker with the guitar then you’re in trouble, if it’s the fella who you see coming out of the bookies then you’re in luck. Ran off with the girl from Boots in the end. Should never have been a priest that geezer. Mass finished it was the never ending walk back home, hoping the tape you’d put in your Amstrad hadn’t crashed and you could spend all afternoon playing games.
They were all out on a Sunday, pouring from the church, in their best suits, the old boys who’d come over on that boat so many years back. Come to find their riches, streets paved with gold. Now propping up bars, dreaming and singing of a home so different to the one they’d left. A quick prayer for the forgiveness of their sins and a pint of Guinness or ten to wash it all down. A little enclave of Ireland in the middle of north west London. The old boys have gone now. They either made their fortunes or made their miseries. Home in the The Fields of Athenry or lamenting the Rare ‘Auld Times in Dublin city.
People would ask where you’re from and you say ‘London’ and they say ‘Oh! You’re English!’ and you’d say ‘I’m not sure what I am.’ They look at you funny, as if you’re mental. You don’t know though. You were brought up in London but it wasn’t really London because everyone you knew was Irish and when Ireland were playing the teacher would get the television out and you’d all watch the football. The green on Paddy’s day, everywhere. Then you’d go on holiday for the summer to Ireland and they’d tell you you’re English. Confusing, ain’t it?
The old clock above the bakers has gone. You’d keep an eye on it all the way up the road as it gets closer and closer to eight fifty five, the start of the school day. Hoping you’d have five or ten minutes to play football. Weren’t like other schools though. They could play with balls. You and your mates had to beg the geezers who were moving the beer barrels into the social club to give you the tops off the. Little round discs you’d play with until the sides had worn down and couldn’t be kicked anymore. Then it was back to the railings and waiting for a beer delivery.
Back on the high street and the 98 passes by. The world’s shittest bus. Wait twenty minutes and three come along together? Nah, wait an hour and five of them would come along. You could sit upstairs though, the conductor never came upstairs, couldn’t be bothered. You had to wait for it when you went to work, down in the market, carrying bags of spuds and boxes of watermelons. Times had changed, you weren’t that shy kid who daydreamt his way home from school, dreams of becoming a footballer. Life was now for going out and getting fucked up. Five years. Such a short space of time, such a massive change.
The spuds and watermelons put away and it was into the pub and pints of lager at twelve in Church Street. Your nan would catch you coming out of the pub and then have a go at your guvnor. Like that Friday you were pissed out of your mind and went and got a haircut and she was coming back from Tesco’s and nearly had a heart attack. There was many a ‘Jesus!’ said that afternoon, a good few prayers, maybe a candle at six o’clock mass. He can’t have been listening because it all went downhill after that.
Passing Brondesbury station, the smell of the trains hits your nose. When going to Richmond and Kew was an adventure, they seemed so far away. Sitting on the train, looking out the window to catch a glimpse of the parts of west London you’d never seen before. See if it was the same as home or if it was different. Spending hours looking at deer and flowers. Richmond and Kew. Exotic. A million miles from home.
At the top of Kilburn, down Christchurch Avenue. This road holds so many memories. Some brighter than the ones at the bottom of the high road, some much darker. It’s the darker ones which hit you first. Remembering the day you knew. You knew why you were shivering and shaking and had been getting sick. You knew the only way to stop it was to go to the shop and get another one. There was no denial. Eighteen years old. All that rock star bollocks, glamourising addiction? It ain’t like that. It ain’t like that at all. It’s shit.
The few years before, they were good. You had a good time. Sitting outside the little park at the end of the road with your mates after playing football until the sun went down. Laughing and joking well into the night. Talking about the times when you were both living down in South Kilburn, wondering what had become of people you hadn’t seen in years. The future? You didn’t give a fuck about the future, it would be what it would be.
The nights when you’d trek down to Hammersmith, dodgy ID in hand. Drinking the nights away next to the river. Your mates couldn’t handle their drink, pissed as you staggered up Ladbroke Grove to home. Staying up all night with cheap vodka, smoking draw, watching shit on television. Your mate coming up with his next business venture, your other mate making plans to go and travel the world. You’d take out the atlas, you were going to do it. A couple of more years and you’d be off together to have the times of your life.
One of your closest friends, both took different paths, he stayed on the train while you got off. You came out the other side but he didn’t. Looking up at the roof of the flat where you both sat watching the sun come up, you wonder what you could have done differently. Probably nothing. Everyone says that. Still doesn’t stop you wondering. You’d got clean and were backpacking around Cambodia. He was in Thailand when he died. Two figures, sitting on the roof, plans to go far away. You both went far away but only one of you came back.
They were the happiest years. It was really just a limbo between innocence and debauchery. You were having a taster but you weren’t quite there yet. The line was visible, you knew if you crossed it there wouldn’t be any coming back across it. It seemed so far away though, as though it was just a warning, like one of them coppers who used to come into school and tell you it you smoked a spliff you’d be selling your arse down King’s Cross for a couple rocks the next day. You’d think, that’s a load of bollocks but at the back of your mind it was there. The line, cross the line and you’ll be fucked.
How can a leafy road in north west London bring back so many memories, so much feeling? You shiver, you can almost see yourself walking down the road with a blue bag in your hand, inside a bottle of cheap shitty cider. You’d have been going home to sit on the sofa all day, dreaming of all the things you wanted to do but couldn’t because you were just going to do the same thing you did yesterday. Get pissed and dream. You’re not dreaming now though, you’re living it.
Fuck this, it’s too much. Turn around, go back to the High Road, that’s where the good memories are. You’ve faced the bad ones before, you can’t keep going over the bad ones. Back to the Coca Cola balls and run outs and playing football with beer tops, two white abandoned towers and sweet shops. Pubs where you’d spend the evenings with your mum and dad and nan. That’s the place you want to remember. Sweet home Kilburn High Road.