Lambeth North

Lambeth North, home to London’s Imperial War Museum. A reminder of the futility of war and those who have lost their lives.

He’s been whistling for ten minutes, but no one’s stopped him. It’s a lull, a break from the madness, the simple sound everyone takes for granted brings joy, thoughts of home, a cooked a dinner, fresh air free from the smell of death. Keep going, keep going. I keep telling myself I need to keep going, it’ll finish some day and then I can go home and see my mother and father, my Gracie if she still wants me. The whistling brings the smell of home cooked food, you never thought potatoes had a smell before but I’d recognise them in an instant now.

The whistling stops and the silence is back. It’s not the silence you have a night when you’re lying in your bed waiting for sleep, or the silence at the beginning of a performance when you’re waiting for the singer to open her mouth. It’s thick, you’re waiting for it to break but you know what breaks it won’t be a dream or a beautiful voice. It’ll be more bangs and flashes and screams and shouting and then it’ll go silent again, if you’re still there to listen to it. I sometimes wonder if death would be better than the silence, an endless dream with no more screams.

Back home I wonder what they’re doing? I’m sure mum will be cooking something for dinner, dad will be sitting at the table smoking his pipe and reading the newspaper, a small fire burning. The steam coming off the pans. How many times I sat in that room, impatient, waiting for the food to come, sighing and huffing, my father staring at me with that look of ‘mind your manners’. I’d happily take being there with him scolding me, the food arriving on the table, a hot mouthful, the feeling in your stomach as you feel the warmth travel down with the food.

I was going to be a hero, all dressed smart in khaki, Gracie standing there admiring me, I’d be home in a few months and we’d get married, have a big party. A hero, that’s the words that always stick in my head. What’s a hero? Someone who goes off to a land across the sea to die? Men with families leaving them with smiles on their faces, never to see them again because it’s your duty to fight an enemy you’d never seen or met before? Called heroes by those who have no idea what it’s really like, I’m not a hero, I’m just a boy who did what he thought was right.

The wall of the trench is hard against my back, a wall made of mud and God only knows what else. I don’t like to think, I’m probably leaning against a part of a friend. His reward for being a hero was becoming part of the thing that killed him. My feet are sore and wet but I daren’t take off my boots for fear of what I might find. They’re not bad enough to be sent home but they’re bad enough I don’t want to see them, maybe I should make them bad enough to be sent home. They wouldn’t believe me though, I wouldn’t be a hero anymore, I’d be a traitor.

My friend Billy Watson, he went last week. We signed up together, walking back as happy as could be, we were off to war. Billy was getting married too, I wonder if she knows yet? She was a nice girl. She could be a bit moody but Billy was a silly bastard and he needed someone who would have put him straight. Oh! She would have put him straight! He never stopped talking about her, every day it’s all he would take about, oblivious to everything that was going on around him, he was sure he’d be going home.

It’s cloudy tonight, I wonder if it’s going to rain? It just makes it worse when it rains, the mud gets everywhere, you’re scared to look down at the floor for fear of what you might see. It looked like rain last night but it never so we might be lucky tonight. Nothing has happened for days, you know it’s coming but none of us ever know when. A bit of sun would be nice, you don’t realise what a little ray of sun hitting your face can do, it brings just the smallest bit of hope. Poor Billy, hey? He’d love to be able to see the sun one more time.

You see them sometimes when they pop their heads up over the trench. I don’t want to see a person, I want to see the devil. If it was a devil, it’d make it easy to hate. I can’t hate them though, they can’t be any different to what we are. Just a load of kids who’ve left their families and they don’t know when they’ll see them again. There’s a German me over there, and he’s dreaming of a German Gracie who’ll be waiting for him when he gets home. They’re supposed to be your enemy but the longer it goes on the longer you realise we’re all just the same.

I’ve been saving this cigarette, Billy had it in his pocket. I shouldn’t have taken it but I said to myself if anything happened to him I’d have it for him. I knew he was saving it for a special occasion. When it’s over he said, we’d share it with each other, celebrate going home. You were a good man Billy, this one’s for you mate. A hero. The smoke feels good as it hits the back of my throat, small pleasures where there are few to be found. Staring at the orange glow of the cigarette I think of the sun, yeah, maybe it won’t rain and it’ll be sunny tomorrow.

Excerpt from my new book of short stories Queen’s Park to The Elephant which is available to pre order here. The books is 16 short stories which are based on stops along London’s Bakerloo tube line, the places and the people who live and have lived there.  

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Queen’s Park to The Elephant

A journey taken every day, often the same people sitting there in the carriage that you’ve claimed for yourself, it’s yours and these people are being allowed to share it with you. Looking at insurance and holiday adverts above the person opposite. Eye contact is a glimpse in to their soul and they’re not going to give you that, who knows what they’ll give away? The person who gets off the train at that obscure stop which you know nothing about, what’s there? Who even lives there? Why does that old Chinese lady live in Warwick Avenue?

Cities are big places, you know barely anyone, those you do know, their lives are no longer interesting because they’ve told you a thousand times about that time they went to India to find themselves while dropping acid with washed out hippies. So cool, man! they probably never went anyway. Cynicism, why do you have to be so cynical? That guy over there, holding his sleeping bag, tattered trousers, big beard and a bright red jacket, he doesn’t look like he belongs, he sticks out, I bet he has a proper story to tell.

Oxford Circus, the tourists pour on and off the train, excited little kids with their mothers secretly hoping that mum is going to buy them something nice, already planning what they’ll do with their new toy when they get home, the chance of disappointment buried deep at the back of their minds because for the next couple of hours they’ll be living in hope, hope for the simplest of things. Like when you were a kid, when your mum used to take you to Oxford Street so you could look at the shop windows and the lights and the thousands of big red buses, and the people, so many people. You’re envious of that kid, a day living the innocence of childhood again would be the greatest Christmas present.

It’s enough to make you smile and remember that it isn’t all doom and gloom and the world isn’t about to end because that’s all the television and your friends on social media are telling you. It’s a great place to live, you should have got off at Regent’s Park and taken a trip to the zoo, it’s a long time since you’ve been to the zoo. They’ve got a new panda apparently. You could nip over to Madame Tussauds while you’re there as well, you’ve always wanted to meet William Shakespeare, lose yourself in your own little world, recapture the imagination that’s been lost in a world of facts and information overload.

All the sights and sounds, without the people there’d be no sights and sounds. Cities and towns and villages across the world, it’s the people who make them. Even the ticket inspector who stopped you yesterday and told you you had to pay a fine because you’d bought the wrong ticket, you’re still wishing ill upon him now, the thought of him makes you furrow your brow, I wonder when he went home did he give me a second thought? I doubt it, there’s no conscience for the wicked. I bet he’s doing the same thing to another misfortunate right now, he’ll be enjoying it too.

That uncle of yours, the one who lives in Kilburn, the Irish fella who came over on the boat years ago, long before your mother, I bet he’d have told him where to go. You should go up and see him soon, it’s been a long time since you’ve sat in the bars of County Kilburn with a pint of Guinness, the soft voice of uncle Mickey telling you stories that make you laugh, pints flowing, songs of rebels and fields in the background.

People get up, careful not to bang into someone else, fear of confrontation, fear of exposure. God forbid someone interacts with them. Your little dream well broken as the doors open and the rush up the stairs to the world above begins. The Elephant and Castle, there aren’t any elephants, and the castles are bright pink. All change please, this train terminates here, all change. Queen’s Park to The Elephant, sixteen stations, sixteen different people all with tales to tell.

The introduction to my new book which is available for pre order on Amazon here.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/launch/

Fruit, Books and a Vodka and Coke

Potatoes, strawberries, cabbage and lychees.  Watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers and Melons. Spread all over the floor, exotic fruits mixed with boring vegetables. A man smoking a cigarette, drinking the milkiest of milky teas telling you the virtues of all his wears. You’ve never seen tomatoes so fresh and you’ll never eat watermelon so juicy and he’ll even through in a head of cabbage because he’s feeling kind, not because he can’t get rid of it, no one wants it as it sits alone, sad and lonely its star has been stolen by the colourful and glamorous from places far away.

Then there’s the man with the old books. No one takes much notice of him. They look but they rarely buy, why does he even bother? Old and tatty books, no abstract covers with weird and wonderful designs to allure the reader in. The cover, it’s all about the cover. Every week people pass by thinking there must be a gem in there somewhere but never bother to look, next week when they have more time. The owner wonders why he bothers until one person comes along and picks up a book, flicks through it because they feel they need to flick through even though they’re not reading it, puts the book down, pretends to think and then walks away ‘back later mate!’. That’s what gives him hope.

Between the stalls, a glimpse of a betting shop. A man standing outside, newspaper in his back pocket, pink and white slips in one hand. This is his ticket to glory, it’s what’s going to give him the break he needs, he’ll never have to worry about money again and when that 100-1 long shot comes in he’ll buy everyone in the pub a pint. It can’t lose, that geezer in the pub who used to be a jockey told him it was a dead cert. He’s on the beach already, he’s winnings buying him a villa in the south of Spain. A quick kiss of the slip before he confidently walks back into the shop to watch the race which will shape his destiny.

Made in China, a stall full of cheap toys. Water guns, plastic soldiers and dolls all sitting next to each other. A child pulling his mothers sleeve, hoping she’ll stop. Last week he didn’t have the courage to stop her next to the stall, all morning he’s been building up to this moment, the two seconds it takes to pass the stall before his chance his gone. The white ball at the top of the stall is all he wants but she might say no and if she says no it’ll ruin his day, his week, even his life. He told his friends he was going to get a new ball, they’ll never believe him again. His mother stops and walks with him to the stall, his face lights up, anxious because she might still say no but there’s more hope than before.

Then there’s the butcher. He has a shop, not just a stall but a real shop. He has a shop because he’s important, probably the most important man on the street. He confidently walks around his shop, cutting pieces of meat, telling people to wait their turn as they all line up hoping the person in front doesn’t take that nice bit of bacon sitting at the front. The butcher takes his time, all a show, watching the maddening crowd as they eye up the meat that’ll make or break their Sunday afternoon. ‘Sorry, I’ve none left, but I’ve got a lovely bit of beef.’

Old ladies stop and chat in the middle of street, this is their time and their place and no one will stop them talking about Bridget whose son is a raging alcoholic and the fool he’s making of himself. Don’t forget about Maureen either, she’s not been going to Mass recently, that’s not for them to judge but still they’ll light a candle for her, her only saviour, a candle and a prayer. It’s terrible around here now they tell each other, they don’t feel safe going out as they stand in the middle of a busy market, blocking the way. ‘All them foreigners ain’t it?’ as the asian man points out one of them has dropped their purse. ‘Oh! Thank you darling! What a nice man!’

Outside the pub they take a break. Bags of fruit and vegetables sat next to them as they slowly sip their pints or half pints or vodka and cokes. Only a quick one before they head home. Five hours later and there’ll be one more for the road and lost bags. ‘I put that bag down next to you! I told you to look after it!’ ‘No you never, you said you’d put it behind the bar!’. Not a serious crime, losing a bag. When you’ve had a few there aren’t any serious crimes, especially on a Saturday afternoon. A crescendo of noise as stories are told and the sounds of laughter rise higher and higher.

The road comes to an end, people go their own way home, laden with bags of fruit and vegetables, meat if they got what they wanted. Waving goodbye to friends, they’ll see them during the week if not they’ll see them next week. A man with a newspaper in his back pocket heads for the quiet pub, the one there’ll be no one in. He’ll never listen to that jockey again, should have known it’d never win at 100-1. His dreams of beaches and villas and buying everyone pints gone for the week. His luck will change one day though, it has too, probably be next week he thinks to himself as he starts to dream again.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/crescendo/

The Elephant

It’s all fuzzy, everything looks like it’s made of plasticine, if I reached out and touched it I’d be able to mould it into beautiful shapes, butterflies, birds, balloons or an elephant. An elephant would be nice, if I had an elephant I’d just spend all day riding it, around the streets of London, imagine the faces of the people walking the streets? Me on my big elephant waving as I passed them. Have you ever ridden an elephant? I’ve never had one, I might make one out of that bed side table over there, a massive one, even bigger than the ones they have in Africa.

I keep thinking that geezer over there keeps looking at me but I’m sure he’s nice. I don’t know him, I don’t think I know anyone here, all their faces are blurry, I can’t make out who they are, just the way their heads move to look around. They’re talking about something but I’ve no idea what. I can’t even move, it’s like I’ve lost all ability, I can just sit up and I’m stuck like that. I want to say something, anything, just to let people know I’m still here but I can’t, my mouth won’t open, only my eyes are able to move.

I’m floating, up towards the ceiling, I’m looking down on myself, I can see myself sitting there, no idea what’s going on. Have I died? Is this what it’s like when you die? I feel calm, I’m not panicking but I’ve left my body and I don’t know where I am going. I reach out to touch myself but I’m too far away. No one else can see me floating here, they’re laughing, I can see their faces now, some of them look happy and soothing but some of them look harsh and as if they want to do some harm. I’m safe up here on my own, they can’t get me, they can’t even see me.

I’m back, back inside my own body. I rub my hands together and touch my legs, make sure they’re still there, make sure that I’m alive. They all turn and laugh at me, welcome back to reality. How long was I gone for? Was it nearly the end? Could I have died? Fuck! I reach for a cigarette, inhaling deeply and slowly blowing out the smoke, watching it as it rises, it’s making patterns, I can see dragons and castles merging into one another, crashing against the ceiling, fading away to nothing. I don’t want to talk, I ignore their laughter and their questions.

Crisis of thought always come at inopportune times, you doubt when you should be happy or doing something you previously thought you enjoyed. Why now? Why couldn’t it have been 24 hours ago and I might not even have ended up here. Do I want to be here? I think so, I’m not sure. They reckon when you doubt something it’s because you really know what you want to do but you don’t like the answer so you just pretend you’re not sure to reassure yourself. So, do I really want to be here? I really don’t know.

We’re always questioning ourselves though, right? I mean it’s natural, you do something and more often than not you’re thinking am I doing the right thing. That’s usually when you’re doing the right thing though, when you’re doing something you shouldn’t do it’s more impulsive. I’m sitting here now and I’m wondering if the whole of my life has been a complete waste and what if I’d done something different, all them paths you have to choose from and if at one of them paths you’d taken a turn you wouldn’t be where you are now.

All these people sitting here with me, they’re my friends, well at least I think they’re my friends. We do everything together, everywhere I go, there’s usually one of them with me. We’ve been through everything together, since we was kids, we’ve seen each other grow up and now I’m wondering if they’re really my friends. If they thought I was doing something wrong in life would they say listen you need to sort yourself out or would they just let me go along with it and let me because they’re choosing the same fucked up path along a never-ending road of madness.

This weekend ain’t any different from any other, why am I contemplating the deeper meaning of life and the values of my friendships? Jesus Christ, something’s gone wrong somewhere for me to be sitting here. I need to knock it all on the head, go on the straight, take one of them paths when I walk out the door. Where’ll that path go though, that’s what I worry about, the path I’m on is getting old and boring but at least I know where it’s all taking me. I don’t know where the other path will go and I don’t know where I’ll end up and that’s the thing that frightens me. How the fuck did I end up here?

Excerpt from my upcoming book Queen’s Park to the Elephant. A book of 16 short stories showing the London which not everyone gets to see. If you like the stuff I write, please give it a share on Facebook or Twitter. I’m an independent author trying to reach a wider audience so every little helps. You can also sign up to be notified when my new book is released by entering your details into the form below. I’ll only email you when a book is released. 

The End of Time

Give me a rhyme,

The world is falling apart,

The Koreans want the end of time,

Missiles over the land of the rising sun,

The president thinks it’s all pantomime,

It’s the left, it’s the left, no good guys like the one’s I know,

You’d better be prepared because the world is in decline,

You can’t say that, I don’t like it,

Of course I can, where’s your spine?

It’s fascist, it’s undemocratic,

Your opinion will never be as good as mine,

You have a mental illness, you’re sick,

I’m off to get my gun you liberal swine,

The Russians, the Russians are coming,

Yet still you worship at their shrine,

But emails and of course we won,

On and on they’ll endlessly whine,

From afar they watch, untouched,

Sitting in palaces, eating grapes and drinking wine,

They’ll never know, say they,

They don’t seem to realise this is all by design,

Rubbing their hands, money, money, money,

This constant conflict is nothing but divine,

If they come together, words and love,

It’ll no longer be our time to shine,

Tomorrow it’ll be the same, give me hope,

I’ll still be sitting here waiting for a sign.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/rhyme/

 

 

 

Soulless Shite

“What happened to the pub on the corner?”

“Gone, just like the rest of them.”

“What they going to do with it?”

“Flats they reckon.”

“I loved that pub.”

“That or they’ll turn it into one of them pubs that looks just like every other pub.”

“Remember Friday nights we used to spend in there?”

“Yeah, great times.”

Room filled with smoke, Benson’s, Rothman’s and Silk Cut. The smell of spilled beer, Foster’s, Tenants and depends how pissed you want to get. The fella in his suit in the corner. Looks like he’s going to a funeral or a wedding or somewhere he needs to be wearing a suit. He’s just gone for a pint, and you need to get dressed up to go for a pint because you never know who might be there. Loud cackles of laughter, jokes that’ll be forgotten in the morning when the head is too sore to be thinking of anything.

Neighbours walk in and you buy them a pint. You’ll be hugging them in a couple of hours, the greatest neighbours ever, please don’t ever move, you never know who might move in next door, come here I’ll buy you another one, what you having? Someone’s singing, they don’t know the words, no one knows the words but they’ve all joined in and it brings a tear to the eye. A reminder of those that used to be here on a Friday night, now their ghosts are there, drinking pints and smoking fags as they listen.

The geezer that’d gone home an hour ago because he’d had too much falling back in the door. Don’t give him another, take him home. He’s all right! Give him another pint, he’s harmless. What you having mate? He can’t answer because he’s too pissed and doesn’t know what you’ve asked him. He just wants to tell you about how great life is and how great you are and how great everyone in here is, fuck it, he’ll buy everyone a drink. What you having?

I only came in for one after work. Now it’s seven or eight or it might even be nine, I lost count, who cares? Fuller and fuller, the place is packed, people are happy, the world is good and nothing could ever go wrong. A warmth, a coziness, a safety you can’t find anywhere else. Could stay here all night, all the troubles of the world are outside and no one’s going to let them in. I’ll have one more, there’s no point going home just yet, the night’s only just started.

Peanuts, salt and vinegar crisps, pork scratchings, starving and they’re the only thing that’ll make the hunger go away. Give us another pint and a packet of cheese and onion, a packet of salt and vinegar for the boy as well. The boy sits in the corner, wide eyed, munching away on peanuts and crisps, sipping a Coke, someone he doesn’t know telling him how great his dad is. He just smiles and laughs when he thinks he should. He loves it though, no place he’d rather be.

The owner sipping his pint. Close the doors and shut the curtains. Shhhhh! There’s someone outside, I think it’s a copper. Don’t be stupid, there ain’t a copper outside. It ain’t a copper it’s just someone trying to get in. Let him in, I know him, I told him to come down when the Duke closed, he’s all right don’t worry about him. Keep your voices down! Everyone knows your open anyway, what you worried about!

One by one they leave, walking home, some of them take the long route home, enjoy the cold, night air. Singing, laughing, talking as they walk down the street. The ghosts have one more for the road.

“You been in that other gaff since they done it up?”

“Yeah, once.”

Music blaring. Generic rubbish, a background noise that someone in an office has chosen because it probably makes people want to drink. Different coloured drinks, yellow, green, blue, orange, a rainbow of sickly sweet alcohol lines the bar as the crowds line up to buy more. Nodding their heads to the music, eyeing up everyone around them. Make sure no one’s looking at me even though I want everyone to look at me.

Groups of people standing around. None of them mix with each other, suspicious eyes. Phones in hand, checking it every two minutes in case you’ve missed something. What can you miss? Better let everyone know I’m here, can’t let people think I’m not out on a Friday night. I’ll take a photo of my drink as well. Eyes darting everywhere, I’m sure they’re staring at me. Paranoia, ain’t no safety in here, I want to go, but I’ll have another drink first, one of them yellow ones, or an orange one, I’ll have them both.

A girl on the floor over there, she don’t know where she is. They’re all just ignoring her, where’s her mates? It don’t matter, it ain’t my problem. People shouting at each other, no one really knowing what they’re saying, too much noise, the music’s louder, the more they drink they louder it gets. Spilled pints, arguments, you keep looking at me, what’s your problem?

The bouncers walking around. Big geezers, they’ll throw you out for nothing, just because they can and they’ll make sure everyone sees. Throw them out, it’s time. Not even the ghosts’ll stay for another one, they never even came through the door.

“What was it like?”

“Soulless shite.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kilburn Park

Mikey’s pissed and Patrick doesn’t know where he is. Pints of Guinness, packets of John Players, broken bottles and fallen men. The sounds of music from far away, a boat across the sea, a bus from Holyhead reaching the pub in county Kilburn. The fallen men moan and groan as they lay against their bar stools, singing along to songs they don’t know the words to. A burly man, as big as a bale of hay lifts them both by the collar and out the door they go. No one looks, merriment carries on without a distraction.

“I told him! I told him so. Jesus every day he’s in here pissed!”

“Ah sure, what can you do! The fucker’ll only go down to the Old Bell and be there ‘til the mornin’. You can’t keep a man from his Guinness.”

“Will you go home in the summer, Johnny?”

“I’ll tell you now, I don’t know for sure. We’ll see what the summer brings and then we’ll make a decision. Sure we’ve months to go yet.”

“The mother’ll be missin’ ya!”

The mother. Tall and big, she’d fling a cow around the field if she had to. No man would mess with that one. He can still see her as he walked home from school, waiting by the wall, the wooden spoon in her hand. He’d look for a wall to jump or a field to escape through. That would only make it worse though. He’d submit to his fate, his weasel faced teacher on the bike had beaten him home, told his mother stories how he’d been naughty, he’d been pulling girl’s hair and giving him lip. Not a word was said as he walked in the door, her following behind, his brother in the corner laughing, the weasel faced fucker looking self-important as he drank a cup of tea and ate some cake.

It stung, but he wouldn’t scream, not with that bastard here. He’d enjoy it. His little brother would enjoy it too, he’d tell tales just to hear him scream. He pulls up his trousers, a frown on his face that only a little boy in trouble can make. Back to the kitchen with still not a word said. He can’t sit down because it’d hurt, he’s not going to give them that pleasure. The bastard tells his mother all the good he’s done since he’s become their teacher. The mother nods, she doesn’t like him either, but he’s some bigwig in the church and she wouldn’t want to upset the church. God himself might turn up at the door and curse the farm with locusts and pestilence. A plague would wipe out the weasel so perhaps it’d be a good thing.

“You’re daydreaming there again, I’ll get another pint, do you want one?”

“I will.”

The air is thick with smoke and the smell of spilt beer. The old fella sitting by himself is singing to himself, songs and tales of glory. A story he could he tell, most of them not true but then who tells a true story these days? Shouts over another pint, free Guinness for his tales, he’ll never buy another drink before he dies. A young lad sits in front of him with two pints. He gazes into the distance behind the boy, looking back over the sea and back through time. Or just looking at the picture behind the bar, racking his head, there can’t be that many tales left to tell, he’s told most of them. If the tales are gone he’ll be gone, no more free pints.

“Look at Mikey over there chatting to your one. Jesus, she’d eat him alive.”

Mikey, Mikey. A small fella, where he’s from nobody knows. Just turned up one day, ask him where he’s from and the subject changes. The weather, the price of fags, how many pints he had last night. Pissed as usual, chatting to some woman. Usually they take no notice of him. Too small, always drunk, how could you ever take him back to your mother? He’s not changed his clothes since he turned up. He’s giving a spiel to this one, she looks interested, I’d say there wouldn’t be too many interested in her.

“A good woman would sort him out and jesus she’s a fine woman. She’d knock seven shades of shite out of him if he tried any of his carry on.”

“I heard a rumour that he’s an American.”

“An American? How in the fuck would he be an American?”

“A con man, a shyster, sure he’s only putting the accent on. Came over on the boat from America, someone said he murdered a man over.”

“Will you fuck up! He couldn’t murder a fly.”

The music gets louder, dancing and merriment, falling over and silliness. The curtains are down, they’d not make a difference, anyone with an ounce of sense would know it was a lock in.

“Were you good at school, James? You look like the kind of man who was good at school.”

“Jesus no, the teacher hated me. Ferrety looking fucker, I’d love to find him and put him the foundations of one those buildings we’re putting up.”

He’d be walking down the road to school. A cow or a sheep or even a butterfly would distract him, even a flower if he thought it would look nice in the hair of his darling Aoife. Oh Aoife, she ruined his schooldays. He’d smile at her as he walked through the door, she’d not even look at him. Far too below her, poor people, not the sort of boy one should be mixing with when they have aspirations of greatness, they’d bring you down to their level and you’d be cleaning floors for the rest of your days.

There was no girl in the world more Beautiful than Aoife though. Her friend was the nasty one, had an evil eye, she’d look at him and he’d spend the night awake frightened of what curse she’d put on him. He’d look at Aoife and move his eyes quickly because she’d know, the red headed one, Sally Murphy, she’d be waiting for their eyes to meet so she could wish some evil upon him. Then the teacher would give him a clip around the ear and lecture him on the evils of lust, the only place for such people was Hell.

The cow or the flower or the butterfly would have made him late so that was another clip around the ear. They’d all laugh. Slinking into his sit, ear stinging, kill the bastard, Jesus if there’s a God come down and punish him for his sins. If you don’t learn your Irish you’ll be staying back another year and your mother will be the talk of the town! You wouldn’t that now would you? Fadas and bhs that sounds like vs, how does a bh sound like a v? No fucking use anyway. Chanting and noise that means nothing, what’s the time? Surely it’s time to go home?

“I’d never have thought that now. Jesus, you were the naughty one?”

“I wasn’t the naughty one. That bastard just hated me.”

“What happened to your one?”

“Which one?”

“Your one, Aoife?”

The day before he was to get the boat over. Brothers and sisters fussing, telling him to be careful. You’d never know what those heathen English’d do to ya. Mind your money on the boat too. He was the first, the first to go over. The mother was crying, she wanted him to go, but she had to cry because if she didn’t cry what kind of mother was she? And what would the priest think? They gave him a fine feed, big pork chops with spuds and carrots and peas and gravy and sprouts. The best meal he ever ate. The sisters were crying now too, Jesus would they ever shut up.

Will you go to town for one last drink before you head over? We’ll go for a drink or two, or three or four, fuck it we’ll get pissed, who knows when I’ll be back. The mother is roaring now, the handkerchief isn’t wet, dry as a bone. Off down the road to town. Dark, no butterflies or flowers to distract, the moo of a cow, but cows don’t interest him anymore. The pub is packed, what are they all doing here? It’s not for me anyways. Dancing and drinking, a glass flies over his head, a thousand pieces on the floor, nobody stops, on they go, dancing and drinking, singing if they’re able or not.

Sat in the corner there she is. In the pub, surely that’s a sin, no such lady would ever be seen in a pub like this. Stone faced, not impressed with the rabble, eyes roll as they all make fools of themselves. Tomorrow they’ll be sick and their heads will be sore and they won’t know what it was they did the night before. Never would she do such a thing, yet there she is mixing with the rabble, not mixing, watching, but why’d she be here? Tomorrow morning it’ll be off on the boat, he’ll never see her again.

Oh that hair, the beautiful black hair and the blue eyes. She’s a princess among paupers, they don’t deserve to be in her company. The red head, she’ll be here somewhere, they’re never not together. Her protector, putting spells on anyone that’d look at her, making sure a glance in her direction is enough to send them to the priest the next morning. He can’t see her, perhaps she’s dead? That’d be a fine going away present. Jesus, you shouldn’t be thinking like that! There she is, the red head. She’s pissed!

No evil curses tonight. A smile never seen before, her eyes are only full of joy and lust. Lust? Jesus, she’d want to be careful with thoughts like that. Your man from the school will be down quick enough to condemn her to a life of reading the bible, being a good woman, knowing her place. She’s looking at him, fire in her eyes. He should have stayed at home with his mammy, she’s turned into a witch, a temptress, she’s looking to corrupt his poor innocent soul. He takes his pint and turns to the bar, staring open eye in the mirror. She’s going to defile me, and Aoife! Jesus what will Aoife think?

She’s gone, his princess, the one he’d never said a word to, the reason he went to school, the reason his ears would sting every night when he got home. She’s gone and she’ll probably never be seen again and all because of that red headed hussy! I’ll go to the priest before I go! Our Father, forgive me for I have sinned. Are those even the words? Jesus, I don’t know. He’d spent too much time in the church daydreaming. Forgive me father for I have sinned… that’s the one.

Now she’s standing next to him. Her hair, never has he seen a colour so red. The eyes, the eyes are demented, the woman has gone mad. There’s no evil in there now, just pure lust, and madness and the urge to defile him. Oh God, he should have stayed at home with the mammy and the sisters and they could have all cried together and then they’d go to bed and he’d be on the boat and there’d be no defiling at all. A drink, she wants a drink. Hasn’t she enough in her? Another drink and there’ll be no stopping her. Sally Murphy, the devil himself has turned up in this town and corrupted you.

The drink is flowing, she’s not so bad after all. A fine looking woman, never noticed before. Swinging him around the floor, clapping and laughing. There’s no evil in her at all, all sweetness, goodness, how could you ever think such beautiful woman would ever put a curse on you? The boat tomorrow, what time does it leave? He could stay, marry her, lots of kids with red hair running around. The mammy would probably cry even more if she thought he was staying. What did he ever see in your one? What’s her name? Aoife, she was just a mistake, a product of misguided childhood. He never saw which one was the fairest, the flower just waiting to be plucked.

She’s always loved him she says. From the moment she first saw him at school she knew he was the one, they were going to have lots of babies together. Another drink, he could stay another week anyway, put it off, could go over anytime he like. There’s nothing wrong with being defiled either. The pub is almost empty, old men staggering out the door, still singing, falling out into the empty streets. The debauchery of the night is over but they’ve no boats to catch. She grabs him by the hand and down the road, into a field.

The clothes are coming off, her eyes are wild. He’s shaking, frightened, excited. Her mouth is filthy, how did he never see she was such a woman. The two figures peering over the wall. The sound of a gasp, something hitting the floor. A scream. Oh fuck! It’s the sister. Sally tearing off into the darkness of the field, she’ll be forever tarred. The mammy is on the floor, making the sign of the cross, oh lord please forgive my evil bastard of a son and his wicked thoughts and deeds. That poor girl, they tell him, how could he do such a thing to such an innocent. A hand across his head, one more stinger before he goes across the seas.

This is a short excerpt from my upcoming book Queen’s Park to the Elephant, a book of short stories based on stations along London Underground’s Bakerloo line. Kilburn Park is an area in North West London which was predominantly lived in by Irish immigrants, especially in the 60s and 70s.  In the imagination, London is Big Ben, The Tower of London, Westmister, Queen’s Park to the Elephant is a book which will show the people of London that the tourists never see but the inhabitants know so well. Thank you for reading and if you like it please share it on social media, as an independent author any publicity or views on social media help massively. 

If you’d like to receive an email when the book is release please fill in the short form below. I will only email you when this and other books are released.

Piccadilly Circus

 

Tourists; you always know the tourists. It isn’t just the camera or the bright yellow raincoat, it’s the way they walk, they never really know where they’re going, they’re just walking, hoping to find something as interesting as the last thing they saw. It’s a bit like a drug that way, not much is going to top the first thing you saw, it’s all disappointment after that. By the end of the holiday, they’re walking around as if they want to enjoy what they’re doing but they’re not really sure they are, just going through the motions, the magic and mystery has worn off. Inside they’re probably cursing the stupid English and their weird ways, longing for pushing into queues and a little less passive aggressiveness.

You know which countries they are from as well. The Americans, you just know, there ain’t no explanation, you just know it’s them. The Europeans, they look around with an air of aloofness, moodily smoking a cigarette, it’s nice to see the quaint little English people and their strange ways but they’re still better them and God forbid one would have to live amongst them. The Chinese, they have money but they’re not quite sure how to pull it off yet, they look frightened having been regaled with tales of murderers and rapists aplenty, stalking them as they walk the streets of London, not a gentleman in sight.

Piccadilly Circus; circus is apt. There’s all sorts wandering around, putting a show on as I sit here. I’m part of that show too, a major part or a minor part? I’m probably the small horse that’s paraded around for the kids to see and touch before they bring the big animals out, the lions and the tigers. Maybe I’m the strongman, you think he’s interesting in a perverse way but you soon grow tired of his antics, he’s a one trick pony that you don’t take much notice of the more you see him. He too is tired of all the people, but the people are all he has, his eyes imploring you to give him the adulation he needs to keep going. My adulation is money. That’s all I want, just a pound, 50p, whatever you’ve got.

The sleeping bag my legs are inside is starting to smell and there are holes in it, I need a new one. It’s one of them things that I’m really fussy about, I can’t have a sleeping bag that looks tatty. You’d think that was a bit picky when you’re in my position but not having somewhere to live doesn’t mean you can’t be fussy. I always keep where I sleep tidy as well, everyone knows it’s my spot. I don’t care what you do a few metres away, you can piss all over the floor for all I care, just don’t invade my space and make it messy.

Crossing the road is a geezer with a map, he’s holding it up as he crosses, a black taxi nearly takes him out but he’s oblivious. He isn’t bothered by the tutting either as men in suits tut and mutter their way past the stupid tourist and his almost life size map. He stops just in front of me but I don’t think he’s noticed me. I keep my eyes on him, I want him to turn and look my way, he’ll probably ignore me but you never know. I’m not sure where he’s from, that’s odd. He definitely ain’t a Yank, and he’s not European. He takes an age to fold his map up and put it in his pocket. He looks straight at me, his forehead is ruffled, he’s got mad curly hair as well, he looks a bit like a mad scientist.

“My friend! Which is quickest way to Oxford Circus?”

‘My friend’ means he’s probably from the Middle East or South Asia. Got to be Middle Eastern, he doesn’t look like he’s from South Asia.

“Straight up that street there mate, Regent’s street. Keep following it and you’ll know when you’re there.”

“Thank you. 5 minutes?”

“About ten if you walk quickly.”

He nods his head then starts rummaging around in his jean pocket. He takes out his wallet and then pulls a twenty pound note from it and puts it down on the sleeping bag, walking off towards Regent’s Street. I slip the note into my pocket. I’ll be able to get something decent to eat tonight. Might treat myself to a kebab or something. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get a kebab for myself, a mixed grill, lamb, chicken, beef. I’ll stay here another hour and then I’ll head off to get something to eat.

A couple of fellas in suits stop just by the doorway I’m sitting in. They pull out a packet of cigarettes, light them and then start talking away. They’re talking about people in the office they work at, slagging whoever these people are off. One of them is going on and on, the other fella is holding his phone, looking at it as if it’s the most important source of information in the world. He nods his head, smiles and occasionally laughs, allowing the other geezer to keep talking about shite he doesn’t care about but he’s got to show he’s interested. Probably his boss or something like that.

The one that’s talking looks down at me as he rabbits on, he mustn’t have noticed I was there before. I smile up at him, a bit of a gummy smile as I’ve a few Hampsteads missing. He frowns, moving away, looking at me as if he’s just found out his missus is cheating on him with me.

“Any spare change mate?”

“No, I have no money.”

“Wanker.”

“You should be bloody grateful you live in a country where people like you are taken out and shot.”

“Fuck off, mate.”

“I really wish they’d do something about all these undesirables around here.”

I laugh as they walk off, people look at me, they probably think I’m some sort of lunatic. I’m not a lunatic, I’m just an average person. The only difference is that I live outside while they live in nice houses and flats. You get used to the abuse, you’ve just got to shake it off. If I took it to heart, I’d have thrown myself off Waterloo bridge a long time ago.

I don’t want to get up and go. For all the years that I’ve been sitting here, waiting for people to drop a few coins onto my sleeping bag, the bit I love the most is the people watching. You have to do something to make the time pass. It’s one of the most famous pictures in the world, the big neon adverts above my head, the old red buses. People see that and think ‘wow!’ I really want to go there. They get here and they stand around taking photos of each other, posing, laughing and smiling. I often ask myself the question, do I envy them? Nah, not really, I made my choices.

I pick my sleeping bag up, fold it and put inside a plastic bag. I cross over the road walking towards Leicester Square. It’s busy, there are all them performers in the square, dancing, trying to get people involved, pretending they’re your friends, wanting you to dance with them but really they’re not your friends, they just want what’s inside your pocket. I stop and watch as one guy twirls around on his head to the beat of his ghetto blaster. There’s only a couple of people standing and watching him, they don’t seem too impressed either, they’re just watching because now they feel for the guy, if they walk away they’ll hurt his feelings.

He finishes his performance, stands up and bows to his audience. He doesn’t acknowledge me, he knows I’m no good for what he wants. The two tourists look at each other realising that they should be giving him something for the dance, a dance they thought wasn’t particularly impressive. He’s got them, play on people’s emotions, their need to feel like they’re doing the right thing. His eyes plead, he looks around, emphasising that they’re the only ones watching and they should be paying for that privilege. The man wants to walk away but his girlfriend taps him on the back and he reluctantly pulls a note out of his pocket and puts it in the dancer’s hat. The dancer thanks him. Off they go to enjoy a meal in China Town while the man broods over his stupidity and the girlfriend posts on Facebook about her amazingly charitable boyfriend.

 

This is an extract from my upcoming book ‘Queen’s Park to the Elephant’. 16 short stories based on stops along London’s Bakerloo line which paint a picture of modern day London, the people who inhabit it and the way it has changed through the years. If you’d like to be notified of its release please enter your email into the form below. I’ll only ever email you when a book is released. 

Queen’s Park to the Elephant

Bright lights shining off the river, tall buildings of the financial centre in the background, an old domed church making the skyline instantly recognisable. A man sitting hunched up against the side of the bridge, a piece of paper asking you to take pity and give him some money for a cup of coffee. He stares down at the floor, eyes dead, filthy hands visible. The tourists ignore him as they snap away on their cameras, posing, taking selfies, some discreetly trying to fit him in, give their self-indulgence some character, make it a bit more edgy. Make it a bit different to the thousands of pictures they beg their friends to like. A homeless man will do the trick, won’t he?

Edgy’s the thing these days ain’t it? Move to that part of town that your mate who went to buy a gram of Charlie in once said is a bit rough. The one where people have lived for generations, built communities, shops, cafes. Ask them if it’s a bit rough, they’ll tell you ain’t rough, it’s home to them, much like your little Buckinghamshire village. Life’s boring if you don’t live a little bit on the edge though, I mean, you’ll have to live in one of them nice new flats they built after knocking down a block that had been there for years. Need some home comforts, can live amongst them but you don’t want to become them. I heard Starbuck’s were opening up down there too.

A river that divides a city defines where you are from. Don’t go south of the river mate. It’s just a mirror image of itself. People on both sides going about what they have to do. Shiny new buildings slowly taking over the sprawling housing estates. History on both sides, but still we’re just a little bit different from each other ain’t we? Not quite the same. Where are you from? North, south, east, west, you have to prefix it. Unless you live in Mayfair, but if you live in Mayfair you’re probably Russian who’s on the run from the state. Wouldn’t drink any cups of tea if I were you, never know what might happen.

The view from the other side of the bridge, where the power is. The building a Catholic geezer tried to blow up 400 years ago. The people that make the decisions, change your life. The reason I’m dropping 700 bar a month to live in a room. Where else am I going to go? I don’t want to go anywhere else, this place, this city is my home. Faults? There are so many faults. Do I care? Of course I care. But I love it here. Big Ben, strikes 10 o clock. I smile to myself, one of the most famous sites in the world is a clock with a big bell. A kid looks at it in wonder, I rebuke myself for my cynicism, is it this place that has made me cynical?

As I stroll off the bridge, walking back towards the centre of town I pass people falling out of pubs, pissed, laughing and singing. They mingle with the crowds coming out of the theatre, clutching their bags close to them, nervous eyes darting backwards and forwards. Memories of my mother holding my hand as we walked through Piccadilly, so many people. It seemed a world away, yet it was only 15 minutes on a bus. Stories of runaway kids and people looking to kidnap young children. China town with stories at school of triads and Asian looking geezers running around with butcher knives looking to cut people up. Your imagination doesn’t half run wild as a kid.

Watching people as you walk up Regent’s Street. Wondering who they are? What do they do? The half cut man in a suit crumpled against the wall of a side street, crying. Why’s he crying? No one looks at him as they pass, avoid eye contact, avoid any contact, cross the road, please don’t say anything to me, I can’t help you. Then he starts laughing to himself, stands up, brushes himself down and walks off. If I only just saw him I’d think he worked in the city, nice suit, good job, probably loaded, a couple of kids and a wife at home, happy families. Just a passing glimpse is never enough.

A man handing out fliers on Oxford Street, only God can save me, I’m a sinner who’s led a life of debauchery and sin and only by turning away from those evil paths can I spare myself from the wrath of God. The leaflet goes straight in the bin. Smite me if you will I say to myself as I look up at the sky, a drop of rain falls on my head and I smile to myself. Down to the cover of the underground, the heavy air, harried people who rush along old tunnels, desperate to get to their destination, a man playing a saxophone, pennies filling his hat. I throw him a pound lest I be smitten again.

The train pulls into the station, I sit and read the advertisements above the head of the man opposite me. Can’t look at him in the eye, he’ll think I’m crazy. He gets up as his stop approaches, I can relax, I can gaze contentedly at the black walls as they pass between each stop. The man gets off. Warwick Avenue. What the fuck is even in Warwick Avenue? I bet he lives an exciting life. That cynicism again. How am I to know what kind of life he has? I look up at the map of the Bakerloo line. A straight, brown line from north west to south east London. Every station, every person who gets off there has a story, defines this city better than any building or place. Queen’s Park to the Elephant, London without the clichés.

 

 

Going Home

 

A couple of days ago I took a trip back to the area I grew up in North West London, it was the first time I’d been back in 9 years.

Getting off the tube today at Queen’s Park felt like I was going home. Even though I have no home to go to there, my legs were taking me where I wanted to go; back along the streets and across the roads I know so well. It’s taken me nine years to go back on my own, the feelings and emotions of being in the place I grew up a suppressed fear; the good memories and the bad ones too, all coming back as I walked.

Walking through Queen’s Park, a kid again, being with my dad as we strolled from Kilburn Park through the back roads to go and play pitch and putt. Crossing the small park next to where I lived for years I could see myself playing football. The cold, rainy days kicking a ball around the park, the long and hot summer nights playing headers and volleys until it got dark and then sitting on the wall and chatting shit with friends, laughing, joking.

The flat that holds so many memories. Nights spent with good friends, drinking, getting stoned. It was all innocent then, there weren’t any consequences yet. Staying up all night and then climbing up onto the roof of the flat to watch the sun rise above London. No cares, no thoughts as to what the future held, just enjoying that summer, a summer I’ll never forget, one I’d love to live again. There were bad times too, but today wasn’t about that. The bad times have had their moment, they’re not going to spoil my memories anymore.

Past Brondesbury station and that smell hit me. When I used to reach the platform, a wide eyed kid, the smell of the old trains meant I was going somewhere exotic, some place far away on the train. Back then Richmond and Kew were exotic, going to see the deer or those big, hot houses with all the plants in it. Peering out the window of the train trying to catch a glimpse of an unkown part of the city that you’d seen on the map, another world to a young child.

Down the High Road, the old Sainsbury’s, the butchers next to it that had sawdust on the floor. The walk up to school every morning, the clock that has now gone telling you how much time you had left until the bell rang. Sunday afternoons leaving the church, 45 minutes that had seemed like a life time, the smell of the Sunday papers, the high street deserted, the shops closed, men in suits sneaking into the pubs for a quick pint before Sunday dinner.

The homeless man that used to sit outside The Old Bell, his old black dog. The Old Bell, the pub that people spoke about with a whisper and a tut. Mum giving the homeless man money to buy the dog some food. Me wondering how he ended up like that, where had he come from? When he dissappeared where did he go?

Past Kilburn Park station and looking up at the flat I spent my earliest years in, I can see myself looking down out of the window. Watching the buses, wondering where all the mysterious places on the front of them were, what was there? One of the old red buses passing, number 31, the conductor looking out from the opening at the back. Is World’s End really the end of the world? Saturday mornings, watching waiting excitedly for my dad to appear, off to the Rec to play football.

Sunday evening, summer of 1990; my dad buys me a Coca Cola ball, the World Cup final about to start. Walking up to the Drum and Monkey in St John’s Wood, imagining I am Maradona with my new, small, red ball. The old man that was always there. Slowly drinking his pint, nodding at people as they came through the door. The walk back home to Kilburn Park, still warm, West Germany world champions, me tired from excitement.

The pub has gone now, a lot of the places I remembered as a child aren’t there anymore, but walking that route today I was a kid again. It’s been an emotional few days; old friends, old places, memories that will stay with me forever. Goodbye London, I’ll be back soon; the only city in the world where my heart rests easy.