I knew when I gave up I'd start again and shouldn't have bothered in the first place. I smoked for pleasure, but also out of solidarity with the unemployed, the blacks, pregnant schoolgirls. I'd betrayed us and joined them, the tie wearers and joggers, thin women with curdled smiles.
It was the old man who made me think about it. He was bending over the gutter when I came out of the tube.
"Look at that fucker. Fucking bastards."
He retrieved a half-smoked fag which he straightened and concealed. I followed, listening to the commentary, a totally rational view as I saw it.
"Fucking bastards. You're all bastards. Fuckers. Fucking fuckers. There's another fucker. Fucking bastards."
He bent again.
It was a damp night, warm and close. My shirt was sticking to my back. The shops were in darkness except for Spiro's where a swarthy character in a leather jacket was eating olives from a jar. He stared at me as if my request for a pack of Marlboro was a code, glancing back at me over his shoulder, glancing at the door. He handed me change from a fiver and his expression brightened, his lips parting to reveal an acropolis of broken teeth.
"Is hot," he said.
When I caught up with the tramp he was sorting through the bins outside a wine bar. Some people talking loudly were on their way out and a group of four women going rah rah was waiting for them to pass before they entered. The old man was muttering obscenities as another dog end. I slipped the Marlboro into his hand and his reaction stirred the diners into an enraged pack.
"You fucker. Filthy fucker. Fucking filthy fucker. You, you fucking fucker¦"
Tears washed the tramp's cheeks as he tore the cellophane from the packet. He removed the cigarettes in clawing handfuls, ripped them to shreds and cast the pieces about him.
"Fucking, fucking, fuckers."
"Poor man," I heard a woman behind me say. "It's so sad," her companion replied in an upper-lower-middle class accent. "Oik," said one of the men as I turned into a ring of carnival masks all glaring at me with unimaginable hatred. "Fucking fuckers," the old man was saying.
I hurried on into the dark fringes of the Kings Road. Bloated pigeons too fat to fly compelled me on a crooked course that led to a pub crouching between two derelicts, the sign above the door promising beer brewed from spring water. I slid inside with the shifty demeanour of a rat escaping into a drainpipe and emerged on the deck of a ship in a bottle, a foundered vessel run aground in the past. A man was strumming a Country & Western song on a twelve-string guitar accompanied by an accordion player with a bald head and a skirt of white hair that fell like a wig to the tartan squares of his cowboy shirt. The barman leaned over the bar like an acrimonious magistrate.
"Bitter," I said.
I nodded along with the music.
- Freight train, freight train, going so fast
- Freight train, freight train, going so fast
- Please don't tell them what train I'm on
- So they won't know where I've gone.
The guitarist wore a cage around his face and its bars perched a harmonica. The accordion player threw back his head and sang with such passion two women hurled themselves into a frenzied dance. The men watched. There were about six of us like a group of survivors from a terrorist bomb. The women were young and looked old, one fat from chocolate biscuits and depression, the other thin as a lizard in a leather skirt and a waistcoat with fringes skipping in rhythm.
When I die won't you bury me please
Way down yonder on Chestnut Street
"Don't make music like that no more."
- So I can hear ol' Number Nine
- As she comes rolling down the line
"All together now¦"
They sang. There was a midget in the corner doing a jig for the benefit of no one but himself. I was thinking about the tramp. Fucking fucker. He would have enjoyed this. I sucked a lungful of smoke from the shifting gloam. The men at my side wore ornaments of hair around their faces, worn boots that tapped out the clickety-click of the night's last train, beer spilling pitter-patter, pitter-patter in intermittent showers.
"Another?" The barman had spotted my empty.
I used my chin in affirmation and watched the brown stuff swirl into the glass like the reverse of water going down a plug hole. It foamed over the rim and I had to adjust my stance to the tilt of the universe to get it safely down.
The music paused. The men were tossing out opinions like life lines from a listing tanker, swigging back drinks with desert thirst, hammering glasses on the bar with the attitude of a job well done. I was thinking about my job flogging mobile phones. Everyone was talking now. I could call my mum while I did a parachute jump over Lake Geneva. Not that I ever did. Go to Switzerland, that is. Or call mum for that matter. I heard the names of football teams, politicians, actresses, dictators. Somebody was trying to sell somebody else a Lambretta that had belonged to a retired organist who only used it once a week to take his wife to play bingo.
"Hey, it's you."
The thin woman in the leather skirt was standing at my side with a look of sheer wonder in her kohl-farded eyes. She appeared familiar and my heart sank like a mine shaft when I realised who it was.
"What a memory."
"I haven't seen you for, what¦"
"Three years innit," she said. "Since I was at the sandwich bar."
Three years. They'd gone, stamping time over her face like studs over a soccer pitch. I caught a glimpse of my own face behind the bar and looked back at Mandy.
"You're looking great," I said and she grinned.
"What's your name? I forget."
"That's right. Still working down the swimming pool?"
"Nah, gave it up, didn't I. I'm in communications."
She shrugged as if appreciating the impermanence of all things. I bought her a drink. Another drink. We talked about my favourite sandwiches and that I didn't swim much now. Nor does she. I mean, who's got the time? We became cheerful. Then happy, as cancer patients in New Zealand get happy with their plug of Afghani. She told me the joke about two whores discussing a customer who always came in wearing a crown of thorns. "I don't know who he is but he fucks like a God."
I laughed, spilled drink down my trousers. She rubbed her hand over the stain as if to dry it and I started to see the remnants of the girl who'd served at the bakery as in her wedding photos even my mum looks human.
"I ought to go," she said.
"Time for another?"
"Gotta get back, an' I." She tossed her hair and looked coy. "We can have one at my place if you like."
A barge towing a string of skips glided under Battersea Bridge as we crossed under the yellow lights. The water was the colour of pus. We walked for miles through empty streets smelling of piss and Chinese food and I wondered if there had been a chemical attack south of the river and the government was keeping it from us.
We saw a fox ripping into a garbage sack. It turned with silver eyes and slinked silently into the shadows.
"You see that?"
She grabbed my arm and I listened to her boots clacking over the paving stones. Buildings loomed up like tombstones. We climbed nine flights of concrete stairs to a flat where her two sons were sleeping the sodium pentothal rest of infants.
"I don't like to leave them but it would take an earthquake to bother these two." She looked different now, the pub face growing into her mum face, soft and caring.
We were standing in the doorway of a windowless room where the bunk beds and chest of drawers filled the space. The two little boys had shaved heads. We moved to the lounge where the piles of laundry filling the two armchairs beside the fire looked like a pensioner couple in a suicide pact. Toys carpeted the floor. I crushed a plastic bus, red splinters spraying the carpet.
"S'alright. S'only rubbish," she said. An ancient Alsatian was asleep on the couch. Mandy stroked his head and he yawned awake. "Come on, Jimbo, make room for someone else."
The dog stretched, farted and slid to its feet.
"Thank you very much," she said, turning to me with a smile. "He always does that. I don't know what he eats."
There was an inch of scotch in a bottle on top of a TV the size of a child's coffin. I could hear the dog snoring in the hall as Mandy found some glasses. She started talking about Billy, her husband, new energy pervading her thin face. He had wanted to open a bar or a pool hall or a night club of a disco or a roller-blading rink or a long haul trucking business or an internet cafÃ© but his partners always let him down. He did six months for dealing in porn videos but he didn't let that stop him. He's in security now. It's hard to imagine Billy in uniform. Works nights. Guards a store. He knocks me about a bit but not so as it matters, Bill says women like being knocked about and he knows what he's talking about. I mean, can you imagine having the same bloke all the time? I like Billy enough, he's so handsome, but variety's the spice as I always say.
She took off her damp shirt to show me the bruises and I remembered her downy breasts at the swimming pool, two lively chipmunks that had withered into goatskin bags. I'd always fancied her but never plucked up the courage to ask her out.
We started kissing for something to do and when we fucked on the couch among the dog hairs it was like fucking a hole in the ground. She closed her eyes and her face contracted with a couple of fake spurts. She rolled over and told me she knew what I liked. I buggered her thinking about the long walk back to the river and came with a painful gush like a boil being lanced.
We finished the bottle of scotch. She checked on the boys. Sound asleep. Out like lights. Little devils. They look just like their dad. He's a right bastard. S'funny thing, handsome blokes are always bastards. A couple of his business contacts were here the other night, while he was at work. I'll never know if Billy set me up. I was on top of the big lump named Tony when in waltzes his mate, drops it out of his pants and climbs on board. Well, you might have waited, I told him. I felt like a side of beef in the butcher's, turning me one way, then turning me over and doing it the other. I acted as if I liked it and I did a bit. I mean, it was the first time I'd had a threesome and you know what I always say: variety's the spice. I'm going to bring my brother next time this Tony says, you've got room for a third, and he pokes his fat finger in my gob. What a wanker. They were gentlemen though. They left a bit of change.
As she fell silent the dog returned. It sniffed the couch before jumping back on, farted and closed its eyes. Mandy waved away the smell, crinkling her nose.
"Jimbo, for crying out loud."
I gave her ten quid to pay for the broken bus and we sat there listening to the dog sighing in its sleep.
It was nearly twelve, the air scorched and brittle. I heard a child scream. There was a loud clatter behind closed windows, a thump, then a prolonged whimper that faded as I made my way down the hill towards the bridge.
The light grows brighter like night turning to day as the Kings Road unfurls into the trees at Sloane Square. Blokes with big voices sat in cars open to the sky and girls with long legs and futures trotted by on mobile phones communicating. Then I saw the tramp shuffling around the entrance to the tube.
"Fucking fuckers," he was saying.
"Got a fag, mate?" I asked him.
"Got a fag?"
His dead eyes flashed momentarily to life and his wide beard opened as if a stone had been rolled from the entrance to a cave. "A fag?" he said.
"Yeah, got a fag."
He leaned forward, turning like a spy to check on his surroundings, then pulled out a handful of dog ends. He pointed at the biggest and I took it.
"Got a light?"
He lit a match. I inhaled, then ran off past the No Smoking signs to get the last tube.
*Freight Train - traditional