[ fiction - march 04 ]
I returned to Vulgar Villas, out where the city has become irresolute, but not yet acquired manners, or any sense of hygiene. It hates itself quietly. Dirty signs theorise about other places, pointing to inadequate horizons. Roads lead off promisingly but snarl shut, like twisted windpipes. No one knows how to get there, unless they know where it is.
From my bed, I could hear the hurl of the North Circular's turgid stratosphere of traffic. Puffs of dust and refuse from its rattlejunk satellites, its belligerent comets, marked my curtains in squares where the transoms exposed them, fluttering like longdried skin from a gutscraped dog.
Join the dots to see the plot. A week had passed. There were no more bloodsigns on the tissues with which I tenderly evacuated my nose and the scorch had faded from the over-hot shower I'd taken at Elspeth's so that my skin was back to its normal whiteness, sentient white, living white, thick as a substance, and where any mark seems stark as betrayal. I'd slipped back to my life as sweetly as a crab sloops back to its hole with the coming tide, rump/shell/arms/eyes, gone, and I rested unresentful of the passing of my brief gambol, my eyes salt-closed in my own still sea. It was morning, and the phone rang as it had done every morning, always the same two/three minutes. Fuck it, I thought, it's the end of the week; might as well get some before it's gone...
I said nothing: it was Control. The voice began to sing...
"'I wake up every morning with a smile upon my face...'"
Voices behind it, baffled by confined space, joined in...
"'My natural exuberance spills out all over the place
I'm the urban spaceman, I'm intelligent and clean
Know what I mean?'"
"Who is this?" I said.
"The dungeon master of your nightmares, double-O-zero."
"Well, could he call back at a more convenient moment?"
"No. He. Fucking. Couldn't. There is no convenient moment for making calls you shouldn't have to make. With you, there is perfect equality of opportunity. For everyone, at all times, ever, to be treated like a cunt. You are a level playing field of total inconvenience, ingratitude..."
"Sack him," I heard, in the background, thin-voiced Perry.
"You obviously don't know the rest of the song, Control," I said taking up the tune for the last lines "here comes the twist, I don't exist."
"I do know the song, double-O-Zero. I do. That's precisely the fucking problem. I'm saying to myself, Does double-o-zero actually exist!? Or is he a fucking figment of my fucking imagination? Cause if he is, I wanna know. I don't fucking like fairy tales. I want the brain cells back which I'm wasting on keeping a picture of you in my fucking head! It's like a fucking ulcer!"
"Surely not, Control. Think of me as an embellishment. Useless, but decorative."
"Sack him, Darrell. Fucking sack the cunt."
"You can tell that skinny-cocked fucking eunuch I don't fucking work for him, or his dad. I'm self-employed. I'm a sub-contractor, not an employee. If I want to take days off I can. I work hard when I'm out."
"Wahey! He's lookin' sheepish, I'd have to say. Look, double-O-zero, you know as well as I do, that's all a load of crap. You're a motorcycle despatch rider, you great plonker. You're a subcontractor so that we get all the privileges of employing you with none of the responsibility. And even though we have no obligations to you, we demand your full loyalty! It's a very good system. You are a source of endless and exquisite pleasure to me. Particularly you. Especially when it's raining. Then I truly own your soul. And we still get to sack you whether you work for us or not."
"So. Gear up. Get downstairs. Get your leg over your fucking bike. And give me a call soon as you're on the road. We got parcels ready for pick-up, round you, coming in. Plenty of work. You're fucking trouble is you've got unrealistic expectations. Better men than you have been brought down by unrealistic expectations. It's my job to cure you of them, double-O-zero, and believe me, it's a labour of love."
"You're a wanker, Control."
"Nah," he said, "I just stick up for myself."
Nothing worse than a rider turned control, I thought. Worse than a poacher turned game-keeper. More like a galley slave turned to beating the time and intent on twisting the ratchet, tight, getting the finger in the nerves and joints to keep you just at that point where you keep living, keep rowing their war for them, keep suffering... all those years on the benches in the bowel of the ship, crouched over an oar, plotting, festering... Brothers, you'll be feeling it when I beat the time.
I slugged some coffee and geared up, leathers, helmet, paraphernalia. I dragged my topbox downstairs and stuck it on the bike which like me had not run in a week. It sounded like a bone mill, filing joints and cartilage for improper feeding practices. I poured in some soothing oil.
The sky was some shade of desolation and the little snarl of streets secluded from the main road looked like an abandoned settlement, scorned by the Apache, even unworthy of the torch. First patters of rain echoed round my helmet's auxiliary skull as I pulled into the main road and shaped the first bends of the day. I got onto Control through the face mic. I wonder sometimes if he listens to my breathing, just to check. His voice runs round my headset, in at each ear, like a looping pincer, "Thank you for dignifying us with your presence, double-O-zero. Everybody! You valiant men! Double-O-Zero is with us," he announced to the firm's riders across the city.
"My callsign's two-zero, you fat cunt," I said to no-one but Control. My radio only goes to Control. Everything Control says is heard by all the others and by this means he perpetuates his myths...
"So we'll all have to work that little bit harder today. But then we'll all make more money, won't we." It's one of Control's tacks. He insinuates the notion of pulling together into the day's script, along with other concepts all completely redundant in the scene, except in that they are useful to Control. He pretends there's a we; not just the firm, the accounts, the rules of the road and the traffic with the rider caught in between the churning blades of their policies, like a hamster in a lawnmower. But when a rider "bleats" there's always a reason why we/us etc doesn't apply now.
"Let yourself be guided by me, double-O-zero. Trust in me. I am the way, truth and salvation. Though in this office you may appear to be a little red dot crawlin' across a sat-nav screen, I never forget that at the end of that little red dot is a thinking feeling human being."
"Especially when it's raining. Then you are as dear to me as a soaking wet little red dot can be."
I ride. I ride. The brakes hold heat now; my hand contains the bike's weight.
"Double-O-Zero. Answer me. I am the conductor. You are my song."
"And you wanna see that little red dot dance."
"That's right, double-O-zero. We'll skip the light fandango. Turn cartwheels cross the floor."
"Steady on, old boy."
"What's the weather like where you are, double-O-zero? Raining yet?" That's his/my radiocode for phone me. Off air, he gives me a string of address for pick-ups; good money, good start, choice work. I don't need the money, not really, cause my properties - all my grandparental swag - pay me some, but the cash haul validates my day and goes toward the other mortgages.
"Don't say I don't look after you, double-O-zero..."
I grumble noncommittally; I'm risking my life and the firm's skimming the cream off that glibly waning pail. But those are the terms of the game... and it's the only one in town, one among the many games in town/the any games/the same, same game.
"...And he who pays the piper calls the tune. So when I want my pepper pickled, it's your plums in the frame."
"Like I don't know that."
"Can't you take a joke?"
"Not when it's always on me."
"What is your problem? Why don't you go be a lawyer? Go trade forex or something?"
I get into the West End where I can make good money doing cute little drop-offs round the ad agencies, low expenses on gasoline, not much exposure to the rain that's bucketing down, low danger. I knock out the corners elegantly. I know where all the skidsite drains are, the potholes. I know how the numbers run. I wait at a lot of red lights that negate my speed. It doesn't matter how good on a bike I am, I am doomed to the average, talent nullified by the road rules, designed to stop individuals getting too far ahead. The thing to do is not to accelerate, but to keep the bike running. Momentum's everything. Bluff and feint. Fake out the traffic. I get big in the road, just presence and attitude, and the traffic does what I want it to, for now. It's the traffic that's really dangerous. It's never satisfied, never impressed. Just goes away to think about it before it comes back at you. Eventually it's going to find a solution.
"Where've you been skiving off all week, double-O-zero? All the lads've got the right hump with you."
"I was contemplating my captivity."
"Lovely. Just lovely. I'll be sure to tell them that. Ack-shoo-ally, we had a bit of a survey while you was AWOL, double-O-doo-lally. Which word, from the choice below, best describes double-O-zero? Is he... (a) A Wanker. (b) A Mongrel. Or (c) A Twat."
"Pithy, that is."
"That's what I thought. Keep it pithy. "
"Didya? Didya think... d'you know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna keep it pithy."
"Anyway, it gets pithier still. Wha'd'ya reckon, dee-double-dingo? What are ya?"
"It's for the people to decide."
"Never fucking mind what they fucking think! Y'are a mongrel, so y'are! What d'ya say to that?!!"
I ride. I ride. There's heat in the tyres now; the friction's precise.
"Personally, double-O-zero, I think they overestimate you."
Control's my constant companion. He talks while he eats, crouching into the mic, like a hunkered silverback squatted for a good shit in his No.1 favourite, no-fucker-shits-here-but-me shitting-spot; big fleshy lips work in his noshing face...
"Where are you, double-O-zero? Your dot is depressed. I got dots itching up everywhere. 'S'like measles, but none of them are yours. Get in touch double-O-zero, I want to see your pulse. Join the dots, double-O-zero. Become one with the dots."
I ride. I ride. My eyes are blind now, to anything but movement.
"Beep for me. Beep for me, double-O-zero. There's big green stars coming up all over my screen, double-O-zero. Big accounts. Job after job screaming for attention. There's so many they're consuming all my little red dots. Banks, investment houses all over the City. Blinding. It's a constellation of jobs. Join the dots, double-o-zero, join this firmament of effort. Succumb to its gravity. Or be sucked into my black hole. I want the best for you, ma boy. Press that button. Your absence from my screen is an eyesore. Your ingratitude pains my little beeping heart."
Loud sound effects came through the radio, something like guitar feedback, and something that may or may not have been an empty sandwich packet scrunched between two meaty mechanic's hands. Polystyrene cups hammered the mic while Control huffed and blew over it like a barnacled rhino in erotic transport; straight delivery to the riders' headsets; excruciating... "Alright, Alright, you lot. Just adding authenticity. We. Are. The Firm," he boomed intergalactically in a supposedly-American accent to what must have been a London-wide chorus of leave me outs!, fucking hells!, and are you out of your trees?... "You. Will. Be. Assimilated. Into iddy-biddy dots on my iddy-biddy matrix. How does that make you feel?"
"Control, you been drinking too much coffee. Or you're on the wacky baccy. Losing the plot, mate."
"Losing it, double-O-zero? Losing it? I am the plot. I am the phantom of your opera, the ghost in your machine. Everything else is illusion."
"It's pissing down with rain. Is that an illusion?
"Sorely some mistake, double-O-zero. It's not raining on my screen. You just think it's raining."
I ride. I ride. The tires are warm now. The engine purrs.
"Alright, double-O-zero, alright. You just go and do that and we'll all wait for you to get it done. I tell you, if your mother wasn't a friend of mine from the old days..."
I ride. I ride. I balance on risk now; on either side the fall.
"No, double-O-zero. I've never met your dad either."
I ride. The engine. That's the backbeat. My music. The power under my hand. But all the traffic hears it too. They all got it, the power. The hammermarch traffic presses from behind, one way forward one way forward, they urge, each responding to the call heard by all. Move! Get with it! Get out of it! Get dead! It's the way it works. Increment of advantage to the traffic. It's like the arcade machines in the fairground, the mashing, inching ledges of dirty coins, a shiny sea of strangely fecal shale, many heads/any heads on the millioned coins, faces in profile edging forward, drawing back, like drivers seen in profile bopping to psychotic break beats; the shelves of coins hanging over the edge, inching to the edge... I weave and swerve in the rain, across the unblinking gaze of the traffic.
"What colour's your helmet, double-O-nothing-doing?"
"Is that a trick question?"
"Of course it is."
"True Blue? United Nations Blue? Little Boy Blue?"
"Fucking blue. Like the movies you and Perrywinkle watch."
"Not familiar with that shade, double-O-zero. Could you be more precise? We want to re-format you. We're thinking of personalising your little red dot. Elevate you to little blue knob. But you can't even assist us when we're trying to help you. It's not the helmet you was wearing when the bitch at BDG wanted you sacked? D'jou get another one like I told you?"
"No/Yeah. What's-it-to-you, Fearless Leader?"
"Right. Get yaself into BDG. Keep yer lid on, eyes down, mouth in order. They got one going Watford. 'Nother one from Van der Molen & Dreyfus. Goes Amersham. Got another one, out of Hibakusha, goes Amersham too. Cash job, so I don't wanna hear jib out of you! Call me when you got em on board."
Nice work. Paid three times for the same ride. Racking high miles without big motorway. Some chance of coming back with something on board if I can get round all of it smoothly. At least a hundred pounds for sixty easy miles. Nice work. Make my day, financially.
"Stick with me, double-O-zero. You'll go far. And then come all the way back."
The bitch at BDG
I trudge awkwardly in, standing in the office space, like a space man brought to earth and out of his element. It's a pleasant office, japan-plan, precious with feng-shui. It's designed to encourage conference, democracy, a mingling of collective consciousness in open forum... some shit like that... but each and every placement of decoration, every omission of a plant, is a mark of status - some are overlooked while others look on.
The receptionist knows me, by eyes and shape, and she waves a little switch of the hand, forefinger up, as I stand, feeling naked and preposterous like a farm animal on the carpet of the welcome space, waiting for one of the conference to beckon me.
It comes, it's her. She's not quite the boss and she oversees everything that leaves BDG. She's a choke-point, exit/entrance - she has a taste for creating a tight space. I stand on the apron in front of her desk. She has two highrise pot plants wind and spire behind her and the poiselight ray strikes the desk between us, glancing my way. The staging is ferocious, her stare occult. "You're late." She says that to all of us/every time, regardless of circumstance.
I nod, my helmet nods. This is how the conversation started the day she wanted me sacked.
"Because you were late, I've taken the opportunity to send the piece back for last-minute corrections."
That's what she said last time; I lost a lot of work because of it, the run Control had planned for me. I earn pennies while I'm waiting. I pointed that out to her. She said... If you did your job properly, it wouldn't have happened. That's why it's called a job!, her eyes flourishing with some hatred invisibly sourced. I met her eye but said nothing. Then she made the call. In front of me. Actually, she's just lined me up to be here before the parcel was ready, maximising her convenience, and customer satisfaction. My arse is the point of interface to which she passes on her cock-ups.
There is nothing right fair kind or reasonable about her. She does not co-operate. She is petty, and domineering. There is no quid pro quo, no trade. Rather than compromise, she will always up the ante to critical overload, preferring to attack the peace, and the process, than deal with an issue. She puts on the pressure till you fold, not minding where, when or why, for neither right nor wrong come into it. She savours humiliation. She's a bully. She's macho- beyond-macho. She's a total dickhead and a complete wanker. She's a thief, and that's why I hate her. She steals time, ruins days. No-one can come past her without her sticking her hand in their pocket for a rummage through their possessions, their self-respect, their hopes, needs. You'll always be leaving with less than you came with.
She looks at me. She like me to lose my temper. She'd like to jerk me till my thing spits and then accuse me of making a mess. It's not a bad bet: she's done it before. But not to me.
Last time we stood here, our eyes locked, my mind scribbled... You're like a character who has power in a play, and the audience accept that power, feel it, obey it. But when the curtain falls and you leave the stage... It's only real while they believe in it. And they don't. Not in the street. Not where the cameras don't shine. Rumours of your innate superiority are greatly exaggerated. But you know that.
And I smiled, sort-of, showed teeth casually, like a dog that senses its pack about him. On her mat, my frame leaked its insolence.
Control pretended to sack me: I haven't been here in months.
She looks at me meaningfully, and then doesn't; I know what to do...
I joined the other men.
"We was waiting to see if she'd put you in the crèche," one of them says.
"Big Mother is watching you," said another.
"That's what 'appens when the Sex In The City is over," says the last.
"I'll give her some of this," says the first, hand weighing his crotch at unrealistic payload, "She won't be smiling then."
"She never smiles," I say.
"Look, Man, Look! She smilin' at the wetboy, and him all dumb wit yout! He-he! He-he!"
We all peer over as a graceful, well-born youth makes slim motions about her. Her eyes burn back at our grins; she sees leering ruffians, shirtless goons, public pissers. She can't get us all sacked, not at once, but she'd prefer that we live in curfewed hostels, allowed into the city only in daylight hours, under close control, to perform certain, primitive tasks.
"She past seed, boy, she past seed!" our man whispers beseechingly and sniggers break all round.
I want to learn her, I'm thinking, I want to learn her glib malice, I want to socialise by hurting.
Monkey see/Monkey do.
"You behaving yourself, double-O-zero?" Control comes through, "Why haven't I heard from you yet?"
"Usual shit. Waiting. Bitch at BDG."
"Well. You got a blue helmet on."
"So keep the fucking peace."
"Peace? I hate the word."
Her phone rings. She's on the phone. She flicks an elizabethan digit my way. She works slowly over her final checks, making intricate what is simple, and hands the parcel to me, from the side of her chair, arm shortened, making many steps where there had been none.
"Your trouble is you don't appreciate me," says Control.
"I make you right, bwana."
"But I'm gonna stick with it."
"What, double-O-zero, are you gonna stick with?"
I ride. I ride, move through. Over the handlebars, the world parts on the wheel.
Motorcycling is like a dream. It teases impossible moments from the block of the real. As you practice, you become comfortable there and learn to bend the moment. You relearn physics. At the controls, your hands and feet describe your visions. Sometimes it's hard not to think that you are the fixed point, that everything is coming towards you. You sweep and glide, arcing 45 degrees to the ground, righting, swooping again. The gap between thought and deed dwindles to nothing. Then you're riding. But if the dream ends and you come into contact with the world... metal invades dreams. You are smashed.
It wouldn't be any fun if it wasn't dangerous. You don't have to be happy to be having a good time.
I get round. Get it done. It's the usual. And then it's over. I pull up outside BDG, among the riders, lying on their bikes in the rain, like belly-up lobsters in leather and kevlar shells. Some are hurkled down in the bus shelter. Limbs too numb for walking, lips too cold for talking, they're waiting for their hours to clock out, get dismissed, or to get a parcel that goes their way. Cold hands in soaked skins wrap round steaming polystyrene cups and most are smoking, more for something to do with their faces than anything else, or as if to defy the rain which flashes silver as it slices through the bushy puffs, seized in the headlights' net.
As I'm pulling up, Control's voice comes from the little boxes at their breast, "You're all hard, hard men. The work we've done today in this weather!" The men soak it up like heat, this praise. On their bikes, they shift, and leather and kevlar shells creak as their soft bodies move within; praise oils their ease, finds gaps in their armour, like a deep scotch in a warm bar. Cheapest round Control ever bought.
"But you're not as hard as me!" he boarbellows.
I stood behind, shaking my head. Plays to Control's hand, yet still the boys talk the myths, the fucking story, that comes over the radio into their solitary ear, and when they meet, they repeat it to each other. The story perpetuated by the firm becomes the one impressed on their brains, as if it's gathered the language itself, venerable English, formed it into its own poem, a song of itself, the one on everyone's lips. It echoes every day in the solitary skull that each wears, where wires meet. Even more effective than TV. I have nothing better to offer, but I won't sing the song.
"Wa-hey!" guffawed nine-zero/Ronnie... Welsh/ex-Lance Corporal/stupid divorce from someone he knocked up while drunk/two kids he has obligation to support but no rights to see/prone to temper and sentimentality.... "It's double-O-no thanks! Thought we'd been grafting today."
That was it... it comes with recriminatory looks from some.
"Do you actually believe that?!!"
"Ooh," someone said, "Double-o-doodah's got the hump."
"That you have to work harder when I'm out than when I'm not?" Ronnie shrugs, his thick neck expanding. "Do you believe this? That the more money the firm makes, the less the riders individually do?"
"I don't get that," spoke up 12-2/Johnno, from his bike.
He doesn't get it. His dad didn't get it. His kids won't get it. Yea, unto the tenth...
"Then let me get it for you," I said. I sometimes wonder about that moment. Just a little longer there...
"Double-O-zero!/double-O-zero!" Control. I ignored it a moment.
"Double-O-zero/double-O-zero." Strange insistence there.
"Ter-ta-ter-two-zero/two-zero," I said.
"What you doing, double-O-zero?"
"Explaining to 9-Zero/Ronnie that the more riders are out, the less money each rider makes. Especially if one of those riders is me."
"Still on your popularity campaign, double-O-zero? Wasting your time, son. Forces you can't even begin to imagine are ranged against you."
"And that The Firm's success rests on there being more riders than they need for available work."
"What's the weather like where you are, double-O-zero?"
I had him for once. They're hearing him, hearing me. Monkey speak/monkey know.
"Same as it is for every other cunt standing here."
"Don't you know?"
"Course I know. Just being polite. You're a man, not a little red dot."
I yawned audibly, less restraint than a weary camel bored of its own humps.
"I. Asked. You. What the weather's like."
"What's wrong with the radio?"
"What's wrong with your mobile?"
"Fucking phone me."
"No. Phones cost."
"You do want your wages, don't you?"
"You can't do that."
"For a week or two, I can."
I phoned him. Friday night rush-hour traffic pounded up and down, morbid and demented while the day's endemic storm moved remorselessly to the nadir of light. Clouds like coal hunks pissed and bled streaks of silver from wounds the colour of muck in blood.
"Nothing. Fender bender. Rider decked his bike with a parcel on board. Need you to make good. Get on site. Get the parcel. Get rid. Call me empty. Then you're released on your own recognisance. Whatever the fuck that means. And I can turn off that little red dot what's been niggling me all day."
I looked at the descending spread claiming the roofs, the quick rainlash. Air coughed choked spluttered...
"I don't want any more work today. I've had it. Why's it me? There's lots of others there, wanna work, earned less money today."
"Stop whining! It's your job! I'm telling you to do your job. That's all. Don't take it so fucking personally! You're not that important."
"Then give it to someone else."
"No. Because unimportant as they are, their unimportance pales into insignificance compared to yours."
"Very clever. Tell me. Were you a human being before you ascended through the polystyrene ceiling to that virtual arse park?"
"It's my cage, double-O-zero. And I know the corners. And it looks like a fucking paradise compared to where you're going."
He waited for a reply.
"Let me tell you something, double-O-zero. I see in you a man taking a perilous disinterest in his fate. Especially for someone who's going down the A4 in all this shit."
"What the fuck for? You must have someone else over that way."
"No. I got you, babe."
"Get someone else. I'm going home. I've clocked."
"Told you. I've got you. You're not the nearest but you're the fastest. And the least fucking stupid. There's all kinds of havoc down there. And the parcel's already seven kinds of late. The account's screaming, the bitch at BDG. Promised her a miracle after she got the thing out doublefucking late."
"Who did? Rider did?"
"Di'n't you tell her you got a man down?"
"Doesn't give a stuff. Not her problem. Get his radio/Get the parcel. Bring me the radio/Knock out the job. It's a Windsor. In the High Street, near the castle. Blow the poor old bag a kiss for me."
"D'ja-think the parcel'll be there? Reckon it'll be gone."
"Nah. There's people there. Be there a while."
"He caught the fallout from an artic gone tits up. 'S'why I'm sending you. Talking to be done. Get the parcel off them. Say the right thing to the right person. You're a plausible sort of git."
"Is it serious?"
"Christ! What have I done to deserve this!! Told you! Fender bender! Just do the job and stop giving me a headache."
"Sack the cunt, Darrell. I'm telling you. He's the living end of a cunt. Sack him."
Control heaved a silverbacked sigh.
"Perry. It may be that your dad owns this firm. It may be that you are his heir, though I fucking pity him that. What I promise you is a stonehard fuck-of-a-fact, is that my word goes a lot further with him than yours. What's more. This office. Would get on a lot better without you. Than it would without me. Or even double-O-fucking-zero! So. Shut your fucking mouth! Or I'll shut it for you! Got it? If. If I hear. Your horrible voice. Once more today. It will not be heard again in this office. While I am Control."
It's my cage. I know the corners.
I'd never heard Control really lose his rag.
"Who crashed?" I said.
"Oh fuck," I said, meaning... think of a fella who doesn't deserve a decking... but Control took me wrong, like it was all the more reason not to go. Commonly, people think I just don't care.
"Thought he was your mate."
"He's everyone's mate. Everybody likes him." Dumb, gallant Toby.
"You're the only one goes to his house."
"That was a year ago and he never invited me back. How the fuck d'jou know anyway?"
"Don't call me Control for nothin."
"Oh fuck off."
Zen and the Art of the A4
I dream of the Friday night A4 sometimes. It's such a piece of the world now, such a great component, like waterfalls, or doors, or sharks, that it's ascended to the language of my dreams.
The A4 runs straight out of London to the West, from where it's rooted at Mary-le-Bone and quaintly called the Westway. There, every night, like a junky's veins, it gets more than it can handle, gorging like a tick till its maw closes and it slumps closed, dead with satiety, a sealed system of impasse.
Much as I hated them, I think those nightly 30/40 mile tailbacks are among the most amazing sites I've seen. One of the great, gaudy, modern wonders, climbing liveborn out of the belly of the mother of mass production, then fed huge on the synthetic puss, tainted steels and vile compounds that drip from her teats. Hell's baby weeps carbon, pukes sump oil as it slithers its way along the elevated section of the Westway, winding in the everlit wonderland of moneymade towers, cheaply giant and called forth out of the same dirty, gutfucked mare, to whore tailored to our compulsions. These edifices of communication, commerce and limited liability poke above of the road as if to confer at greater height than mere people would wish to. Suits rush in where angels fear to tread. It's so disgusting, so ugly, predicated on so much suffering elsewhere, and such an insult to any god there might be, that I wouldn't blame someone, not completely, if they stuck an airliner into one of them. That would fill up the time between now and when you die. Slamdunkin tv too. Shock & Awe to ring the heavens.
Most nights, one way or another, that skulking demon would come to claim me with its thousands of glowing eyes, its sulphurous breath and its army of slaves sweating and cursing in fetid, climate-controlled galleys. At alltimes they'd drive on, goaded by inimicable fellows ever ready to take their place or alert them to their momentary lapses, their disharmony with the beast, their fouling of its collective momentum, all the while hissing and lashing the spite of their cursed condition. Just people trying to get home, mostly alone, listening to the radio.
I ride. I ride. There's varying degrees; splashing nudge to absolute slaying.
Even the despatch bikes moved slowly, gently slitting the lanes, up the serpent's belly.
Gradually I got enough road behind me and came in sight of the jack-knifed artic. The enormity lay in the road, taking two of four westbound lanes. It looked like a tidal island, the debris around it like dangerous gashrocks, shining wickedly under the siren lights. The police had laid cones in a diamond so the cars split to either side, like a serpent's jaws, labouredly choking kill into its belly. The motherfucker of a fenderbender.
4-4/Toby's bike is a small crumple next to the monolith, seeming formed from its underbelly. The exposure is obscene. Liquids, streaming abandoned gush, make for a sheeny organic horror, like a dribblewriggle of piles; limbs, however shocking, would be little surprise.
The lanes are moving slowly over the cracked glass, the splintered plastic and I throttle down to drift into the reservation, coming up to the focus of activity. Firemen move sheet metal and wield cutting gear on one of the cars. Their little sun fries out the rain that falls there, lighting the scything drops that fall between it and the peering towers which turn a multitude of blind eyes. There's a policeman, in his forties, speaking loudly but containedly into his radio, keeping his eye on goings-on. He's made a profession of carnage, something to expedite, like a parcel. He knows lots of things I don't, about the breakup of the corpse, return to its constituent elements, the droidcrawl of urban digestion. Perhaps eventually it will embellish the towers. He's tall but not quite wide, and looks at home in the rain, in the middle of a motorway. He looks me up and down as I pull up in front of him, but finishes his conversation before...
"You're from the despatch rider's company."
"Yeah. There's a parcel on board. They sent me for it."
"It'll be in the top-box. With the job docket from the sender. I'll show you the addressee before I go, sign anything you need me to sign. With my driving licence number and registration. I can call my firm right now and have them speak to you, if you'd like. On my phone."
He nods to this, all, the bureaucrat module of his program switched humane by the key IDs. "That won't be necessary. Leave me the job docket and sign it for me, please. With your licence number... etc. That'll be ok." Nods eyes with me. Another man at home on the middle of the motorway, in the rain. Pauses. "The rider was hurt quite badly." It's part of his job to show concern, and he's showing concern, sincerely but efficiently.
"You're not interested," he says, vexed that he's wasted the top end of the program.
"It's not that." I pause. "I'm not interested in being interested... d'jou-know-what-I-mean."
He looks at me, rain streams from his plastic-covered cap into the space between us, mingling with the pour from my visor; his eyebrows work at the thought, break it down.
"I know exactly what you mean. I do one of these two/three times a week. Most dangerous job in Britain. Home Office say so."
It's not that either. Maybe it is. But whatever it is, it's mine, not ours.
"Rubbed his face off on the tarmac.. And his... front, from what I could see. Wish I hadn't. You a mate of his?" It's his program to ask questions round the facts, get among the facts. What's the bigger picture? Can't stop the program.
"No. Where've they taken him?"
"UCH. Gower Street."
"I know. Nearest place could take him."
"f'Fuck'sakes! Back to town, and halfway over."
"Take 'em two hours in this traffic," he nodded, empathetically and professionally.
"I'll beat them back, even dropping this off. Through all the refugees."
"It's not a race."
"I didn't mean that."
It's over. And out.
"OK," he said.
"OK," I said.
He points at his sidekick, a blonde woman in the car, energetic mouth works on the radio, as her pencil skids decisively over a clipboard in the pertinent squares. Snug stuff, I see as I lean in over her. She smiles at my posturing over the open door, hand on roof. Nice teeth. So white in a clean, pink mouth.
Over the handleBars
By the time I came by on the return leg the artic was on the hard shoulder. A great crane on a half-track poked its hook into the sky above the truck while precocial machines hassled and tugged at its abdomen, drawing tight a veil of winches and hawsers. I couldn't see the policeman.
The traffic moved by sluggishly, but calmly, wedging into the straitened space, once again farming its increment of advance. Engines calibrated to fly choked the air around with their unconsumed filth, but the driver's kept cool, knowing the statistics of their attritional progress were being satisfied.
I ride. I ride. On momentum now, crash thrown, rolling through to the end, over the handlebars...
Back in radio range, I beeped Control.
"double-O-zero/double-O-zero. You empty, double-O-zero?"
"All done & dusted, double-O-zero?"
"double-O-zero/double-O-zero. Where-the-fuck are you, double-O-zero?"
"What-the-fuck for, double-O-zero?"
"Going to see wassup with Toby."
"That where they took him?!"
"Well. that. is. piss-poor, innit. Poor sod. What a state this old land is in."
"Dear me," he said.
"Lemme know what it's like in there. I'll be here a while yet. Still lads at it out there."
"Yeh. Alright," I said. "They heard ya."
I strode in to UCH, looking busy in my leathers and rig.
It is categorically an awful place; the bedlam of urban casualty has replaced the screams of amputees enduring operations under primitive anaesthetic but one can still sense their presence, oozing from the perspiring walls. No amount of paintings-over of the decaying plaster can erase the place-memories of the charnel. It underwrites possibility among the staff, the sitwaiting people in the feculent corridors, like whispers and suspicion in the putinreich Kremlin.
I was glad of the helmet. It lets you bustle past people. It protected my eyes from theirs, all the pain in waiting. It protects my eyes from an opening that might encourage approach, or the notion that I see people at all when I look at them. In this place of pain, stepping between the unlucky, the derelict, I see obstruction/not obstruction; red light/green light. Other signals stand fail. Faces are simply facts. No past no future, no purposes, I sense no momentums, families, loves. I have not the imagination to conceive of them beyond the phenomenon of their flesh which appears to me insensate; I cannot imagine that they might know pain. My indifference is perfect.
Paranoiacally, I wondered if Control had arranged my visit to Toby's; mate-making, furnishing the berth.
I'd been surprised to get the invitation at the end of a day which found us both standing outside BDG waiting for work that wasn't there and listening to Control jolly us along.
We'd headed to the East End, throwing the bikes around for fun, humiliating the suits on their hometime liberation ride on expensive machines who competed with us in the same channels. We bobbled along like dust in the channels between the cars, riding the static they generated, energised.
"Mate," Toby said, "You got balance like a rat on a razor blade." But fatbarrel rollingtough Toby had kept up calmly against my better bike, and picked routes I hadn't known, sweetly illegal, pavements and walk-alleys, quickscuttle ratsnatch tidbids of tasty delinquency. His gingerish pony-tail, splendid inheritance, gushed down his spine from the back of his openface helmet.
That was the good bit. We got to Bow, to an old and broken house yet to be re-developed. In the dark hall, the house smelled of something which turned out to the be the cankerous ear of an amiable and scrawny Alsatian called Phbe whose greeting turned into a repetitive spasm as she tried to sniff me, then sat to scratch her ear, tried to sniff me/sat to scratch her ear... I stumbled past her, kickcrunching hidden baby toys with my boots, to find an experimental hominid, Toby's dad, six-packed to fuck on the couch in front of a large and temperamental tv, some soapstar pulled faces; Toby was embarrassed. "We don't have a lot," he said. "And this is where you keep it," I said, regretting it instantly; I wished he hadn't said what too closely found my thoughts. "Where's Andy?" Toby asked. "Upstairs," said his dad, casting a quick glance to Toby. Toby's lips pursed slightly. Badgers, the thought flashed across my mind. A badger set sneakily cross-sectioned by naturalists and carrying on its fervent behaviours oblivious to observation. Small animals, utterly devoted to their own personalities, furryfoot pawface softbody underbelly, over one another in their darkwarm swallow of earth. A voice-over, which I found was my own, commentated quietly, stretched taut over its fascination, over the searchings and sniffings, laughing as their honest noses bring them eyes-up to the camera, puzzled by the void-odour non-smell of cold inanimacy.
The nurse looked at me, and I removed my helmet.
"I'd like to see Toby please. He's the despatch rider came in this evening."
"I'm sorry. There've been a few."
"The one with damage to his face."
She clicked over the keyboard.
"Yeah," I said, though I hadn't known his name.
"Are you a friend of his?"
"Brother," I said.
"Do you have some ID? I can't... I'm sorry. It's..."
I flip it for her...
"Step-brother. His dad's married to my mum. We need to know what's going on."
"Why?" she said.
"What!?!" I said.
"Why isn't the information coming up? Ah. OK."
Her eyes made a level moment between us, clearing the clutter for a moment of empathy.
"He's got a lot of damage to his face."
"His nose is..."
"His legs are badly damaged."
"All down his front... He slid a long way."
"Will he walk?"
"We can't say at the moment." Meaning, no. Or, he might learn to call it walking.
"Can I see him?" I asked, because it would have rucked the fabric of the expected.
"Not at the moment. It's not possible. I'm sorry. Would you..."
"Right," I said, nodding, backing, exiting. I wobbled my face around in a show of indecisiveness and simple distress, soapstar device.
I saw Toby's dad and what must have been Andy, their pale Andy, as I was leaving the building.
I radioed Control.
"double-O-zero/double-O-zero. What's the state of play, double-O-zero?"
I told him, and asked...
"What are you gonna do for him?"
"What we can."
"What we can. Without overstepping the bounds."
"Independence. Family dignity. I don't fucking know."
"What a load of shit."
"There you go! Unrealistic expectations. They're not even expectations. You're not that dumb. But you see a window of opportunity for an expectation and you drive the fucking thing straight through the eye of the needle... You demand frustration, ya mongrel! Fuckin' kinky, if you ask me. You wanna sort it, my son. You wanna sort it."
"..." Do it.
"I'm sending a bike for Toby's radio in the morning. Give him yours too. You're sacked."
"What the fuck for? Is it Perry? What's his fucking problem now?"
"Perry's not sackin you. I'm sackin you."
"Why?! What for, Darrell?" What you gonna say it's for?
"You'll see, two-zero, you'll see."