Back I go, back again, to the fear and filth of Old Smoke.
Another midnight megabus; more souls struggling to sleep the six hours it takes to get there. I leave my backpack behind today as the US embassy refuses to admit bags over a certain size and that’s where I’m heading: to American soil three thousand miles distant from its homeland. Six hours is a long time to be celled up without any distraction other than the brightening morning, the day dawning behind glass. I could try sleeping but the bus vibrates and my head bounces off the window in small, jarring movements that prevent me from using it as a pillow. In the end I use my own hand, elbow settled on the window frame, palm cradling my chin. The night flees in fits and starts and though I never truly sleep, time passes, and London arrives.
This time I travel with simple instructions in my pocket and a map I never refer to, which I only carry in case I get lost. The directions short, to the point: follow this road, turn here, keep walking. By October’s morning light London is darker than it was by August’s, yet it feels safer as its pavements are deserted by all but a few early risers whose paths are easily skirted.
Having trouble navigating the underpass system at Hyde Park Corner–again–I make my way down the eastern road to a pelican crossing and return up the other side. Once back at Park Lane I follow the pavement north, ignoring sweepers and commuters emerging from their warrens as day breaks. Between the buildings I catch glimpses of my eventual destination, barricaded to the public but admitting workers with ID through gates by which stand armed guards, watching as the suspicious world passes by.
I join the queue to enter. Events occur.
And then I’m spat once again into London, who’s awoken as irritable as it always is. My appointment at the embassy was scheduled for ten but by ten it’s already over, and I find myself with a day to waste in a spider’s den.
“You’ve got to look up,” said Ben, hours later. We met outside Oxford Circus Station, about which I’d looped so many times the Hare Krishnas foisting books upon those leaving the underground had started recognising me. No names exchanged and little said by way of greeting, we shook hands and went to the pub, for we are Men and this is what Men do.
“At ground level London’s like, ‘Yeah, all right.’ But you look up and it’s like ‘Whoah’.”
Ben’s an articulate man with a healthy vocabulary, which is why this sudden moment of speechless awe stuck out. In the face of London’s primal majesty he’d been reduced to a wipeout-lobotomised beach bum.
And he’s absolutely right. On the bus into the heart of the web, London builds before your very eyes. Layers of suburban habitation and smoke-belching industry heap on top of one other, fusing into baroque configurations, twisting the architecture of various time periods together, becoming more ornate and labyrinthine until it finally collapses and modern life settles to its bottom. At street level lie the shops, the showrooms, the union flag tat and souvenir stalls. Unimpressed pigeons peck food from between cigarette ends–in London everybody smokes–but watch them fly and they soar into the rafters of a forgotten city that sometimes bleeds onto the shops beneath. Oxford Circus Station is one of these holes in time: its original brickwork and moulded lettering intact, the building masks a trench cut into the world that connects the under-city to London above. There’s a whole subway system down there you’d otherwise not see, know, or feel. As I explained to Ben over drinks, at least London’s modern subway openings have the decency to look like they might lead to an underground railway; among the shiny shops these gnarled and yellowed teeth look like tears in reality. I can’t look upon them without wondering just how far down they go.
I know Ben only from the Internet. Strictly speaking, I don’t know him as ‘Ben’ at all but as JoyrexJ9–a name he’d taken from a techno record. I’d spent the morning trying understand London from the ground, work out where the major roads were and how I might move between them so I could travel from Oxford street to Leicester Square, to meet my sister there in early afternoon. Having had no sleep and little to eat, I ended up settling on strange, spur-like sculptures half-hidden behind a cabin vending newspapers. The first time I found this secluded spot there was a McDonald’s bag on the bench fixed to the back of the cabin. When I returned after looping about Oxford Circus it had been replaced with a diary I fought not to pick up and read.
Every so often I’d leave my perch and loop around once more. We were to meet at twelve-thirty; I didn’t have a watch or phone with me so I ended up visiting the Apple Store time and time again, to check the time on an iPad’s clock. Camped outside the store was a line of die-hard supporters in sleeping bags and collapsible chairs, browsing the Internet on Macbooks and the store’s wi-fi. Inside, passing me by as I left was an immaculately dressed old man on a scooter, so old he wasn’t a hipster but a ‘broken hip’-ster.
“I saw him!” said Ben. We’d disagreed on the colour of the man’s scooter but I’ll defer to Ben’s better judgment; the alternative is that there’s more than one old man riding a foot-propelled scooter around London, and that’s a thought too terrible to contemplate.
It’s always strange meeting online people in the flesh. It’s something I haven’t done for a while and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The trick, as I’ve always felt, is to ‘overlap’ the persona you already know with the person physically before you. If you can do that, things will be fine, but if you can’t, they won’t.
So I was quite surprised that I didn’t even try to relate the guy buying me a drink with the one I barely know from our online interactions–which was probably just as well seeing I little I know him.
He’d led me well off the route that had become well-trodden and familiar over the morning’s travels, to a pub where we sat and talked about London, the Internet, people we knew and places we’d seen. At times I fear I ranted a little too hard on subjects of little interest to him but we got on well enough, which is always better than I expect.
Back outside he helped me with directions to Leicester Square.
“We’re on this road,” he said, pinching the map on his smartphone, parting back street buildings like a digital Moses. “Just follow this road all the way down, snake around this bit, cross Shaftsbury Avenue and you’re there.”
We went our separate ways, I followed his directions and, perfectly, emerged from the road exactly where I needed to be. Much simpler than my earlier excursions–all of which involved circumnavigating the immense construction site punctuating Leicester Square–I easily found the way to my destination and all thanks to a stranger from Internet.
Like some eldritch alien monstrosity, London has many hearts. Leicester Square caters for a different kind of tourism to that of Oxford Street. Instead of shoppers it’s filled with snappers; everywhere people pose for pictures in front of distant and close-by monuments, with groups and families taking it in turns to pass the camera around or pose, depending on which side of the lens they’re on. Flotillas of tanned children surely too young to be let loose in the city without chaperone swim everywhere, clucking in French, taking pictures. I started pacing up and down the construction site, dodging heavy machinery until I spotted my sister walking past a brother she no longer recognises.
I caught up with her. Events occurred.
On the bus to Victoria Station, the beginning of the long end of the day, she rested her head briefly on my shoulder and gave me a one-armed hug. “I’ve thought of you as my little brother for so long,” she said. “I don’t mean it to sound demeaning–it’s just how I think of you. It’s good to have my big brother back.”
And back I go, back again, to a once uncertain future, now certain.
On the Megabus to London the overhead luggage bins had chattered like teeth; on the way back they’re silent, and though the world under falling night passes just as slowly, it does so like a dream, as the day’s events fail to sink in.
At every stop, the bus crowd diminishes. I can pick out those who’ll leave at Exeter, who’ll stay on ‘til Penzance. The small, sour skinhead who looks like he’s spoiling for a fight is from Plymouth. The thirty stone man having problems with his seats, who sends a Jurassic Park tremble through the bus when he walks down the aisle, he’s from Plymouth as well. I shouldn’t know these things–I can’t–but I do, because I’m from Plymouth too, and these people are in a way just like me, how I was, how I worry I still am.
I can’t believe it. It still hasn’t sunk in.
When the day ends everything has changed. A flurry of fast food acts as a finishing line; half-starved I overeat, but I have too much on my mind to care.
It’s happening. Unreal as it seems, the events set in motion so long ago have now swung to a stop. The grand machinery belches a ticket which I grab before heading into depths unknown.
The cobweb’s become fragile; at its centre lies London, and I leave them both behind.
I’m leaving home.