I’m leaving my flat when I come across an evidently alcoholic, stooped, iron-haired man, propping himself up for dear life against a wooden stake embedded in the flowerbed at the back of the building next to mine. I’ve never seen this man before, despite having lived here for almost six months, but I realise he’s having problems even making it to the front door of his flat so I go and try to help him make the five-yard trip. He thanks me profusely, explains his drink problem with acute embarrassment, says: “I have a wonderful wife.” He’s holding a bunch of lilies in his hand. I try and smile, wonder if their pungent odour will permeate his coffin. “He always loved lilies,” she’ll say. No, dear, he thought you did.
I’m walking to The Station. It is, unsurprisingly, a pub by a station. Pubs at train stations are, almost without exception, the grottiest pubs in the world. However, they have their own indescribable charm; there’s something intangibly appealing about pubs by train stations that sets them apart from others. Stuck in time warps, they transport you away from reality, enveloping you in beer fog and chatter and music from long-gone eras. Pint in hand, I sit at one of the picnic tables adorning the pavement by the pub’s freshly painted grey/maroon exterior. From the outside it looks more gastro than spit and sawdust and I wonder if, like a Venus fly-trap, it has ever enticed the type of well-to-do clientele into its opening arms that its interior never would.
Sitting by roadsides is a new-found fate for your modern pub-dweller in these anti-smoking times. Two worlds that have never wanted to mix are suddenly in head-on collision. The time warps no longer exist, reality is reality is reality now. Sober passers by contemplate the seated drinkers, whilst the displaced drunkards contemplate the myriad thoughts that occur to the inebriated mind. The Station is at a complicated junction that consists of a busy road beneath a railway bridge on Heathrow’s flight path. More worlds collide here than most
There’s so many people. Just in this one, tiny spot on the outskirts of South West London, there are just so many people. Where the hell do they all go? I hear planes moaning overhead, cars and buses and motorbikes like water flow along the road next to me. There’s not a minute when the city isn’t giving out some indication that it’s moving, living. But living for what? To go on a better holiday; to buy a faster car? Surely there’s more to it than that.
The buses incessantly ferry people to and fro, all of them looking morose and trying not to see one another: mirrors hold fear, after all. Trains signal their arrival above with a giveaway rumble and an elongated sigh, carrying the same long faces to the same old places. A girl with a rucksack and a bumbag – I didn’t even think they existed anymore – wheels her bicycle along the pavement, as though sitting on the damn thing would somehow make it pointless. Where are these people going to? Coming from?
Break-lights and headlights, symbols of the congested roads, spread out left and right like a glistening, spotted snake. But are you stopping or going? The answer is obvious, red is so much easier to see, even for me, and I should wear glasses, or at least contacts.
A man stands on the railway embankment in the near distance. From there he can see through the large windows of the gym that holds four people, three men, one woman, running on treadmills, music blaring from their earpieces while they watch the silent television screens before them showing Sky News. The male presenter’s mouth moves, noiselessly, over the stories of the day. One of the treadmill treaders, one of the men, notices his heart rate does not flicker when he views the carnage after another suicide bomber rips apart another civilian target.
The man on the embankment turns as his coat flutters upwards in the wind created by a speeding freight passing behind him. Another plane comes in to land, flickering lights signalling its arrival. The woman in the gym, who is short-sighted, fights her unspoken UFO obsession with reality.
Football. REA are losing 3-2 to LIV. A man with a stripy blue shirt and an obvious blood pressure problem is not happy about this. Either that, or he doesn’t like television, for he bares his fists, his teeth, at the glowing box in the corner and shouts words I’d rather not repeat.
Back outside, the sign for a hump back bridge reminds me of a Carry On film. I reckon it’s near impossible to put Syd James’ laugh into words. Or similes, or metaphors – you just have to hear it.
I wonder if my lungs look as rotten as the television would have me imagine they are. Or my liver. You don’t eat ten chocolate cakes a night because you know you’ll get fat. Don’t your lungs shrink? I think your liver grows, but I could be wrong – it’s been known to happen.
One good thing occurs to me as all this is happening – indicators. Especially on cars. Indicators on cars are great, when people can be bothered to use them, that is. They tell you exactly what people are going to do, way before they actually do it. Like cyclists with their arm displays – wouldn’t it be great if people were always as transparent as that? If my wife’s hand had pointed towards my best fucking mate I might have had a chance.
If only you could work out what makes people do what they do. I don’t get why people are still driving around at 11pm, or catching buses or trains, or filling planes. I’ve been here for hours, always am. Drivers who don’t indicate annoy the shit out of me and completely mess up roundabout etiquette. Watch Columbo – half an hour of that programme is motive, pure and simple – that’s one third of the whole show – yet “why” is skilfully left out of most people’s lives. Most of the time, they just do.
Take homeless people. You walk past a homeless person and generally, nine out of ten cases, you assume they’re there because of drink, or drugs, or both. You don’t consider their motive from the start: broken home, abusive parents, or any of that, you see an end result and you fill in the gaps for yourself, you assume – but you don’t know. It’s just like a middle aged guy with fast receding hair and a massive gut dancing in a Thai club with a Thai girl 20 years younger and way, way, way out of his league – you don’t think, poor bastard, maybe he needs a boost because his money-grabbing wife ran off with the pool attendant – you don’t, I don’t care how much you’re sitting there now and trying to empathise, thinking well, maybe…
Outside the pub a girl walks past carrying shopping bags and wearing an Arsenal shirt. I think influential boyfriend. But maybe she influenced him – maybe she was the gooner and he followed her, who can tell?
In the gym they’ve stopped running. The bloke on the embankment moves away. The girl was wearing a tiny grey lycra two-piece that showed her nipples when she was sweating, but our man on the embankment is going home to wank thinking about the guy in tight shorts next to her whose heart rate didn’t flicker. Who’d have thought?
Lilies are supposed to be funereal. Yet, ask most women what kind of flowers they like, roses: clichéd, tulips: no chance, carnations: cheap, daffodils: knicked. Lilies, on the other hand: different, thoughtful, nothing to do with death at all, it’s romance now. So what, is romance dead? Make connections like that and you’re bound to go wrong.
The woman in the gym tries to look out the window but she can’t. It’s dark outside and it’s light inside so all she sees is her reflection, but, because she’s short-sighted, she only sees the sweat marks, she doesn’t see how they highlight her nipples, couldn’t, even if she had wanted to, have seen her husband staring in from the embankment.
Another plane roars overhead. A small boy looks out from his bedroom window, sees the line up of lights from all the approaching planes spread out into the distance, orange jewels like one of Tutankhamun’s bracelets which he has witnessed in the British museum that very day. A bus and train sweep by, everyone’s faces reflected back at themselves, reflecting everyone else’s, while car drivers focus desperately on the road ahead. And I, briefly, see the picnic table I’m sitting at made bigger through the bottom of my pint glass. Different perspectives, different reasonings, who sees right and who sees wrong?
Back at home and the silence is all-consuming, closing in, encroaching into my ears. No flying at this time, no buses, trains or cars. Just the sweet lily-smell.