‘Your card has been denied again Mister.’ Said the Italian girl behind the desk.
‘Are you sure? Can you try it one more time?’
She smiled an apology and took the card reader from my hand.
‘We already try three times. It didn’t work. You need to phone the bank.’
Human traffic flowed around the hostel; children with adult bodies shrieked; balding men in crushed shirts nursed pints and had imaginary affairs. Backpacked travelers leaned everywhere; on tables, against pillars, each other – spending their nights and overdrafts in hostel bars drinking familiar beer. The carpet was covered in chewing gum spots and street dirt.
I checked the banking app. A tenner left.
‘I’ve got ten pounds. Can I stay half the night?’
‘This is not how hostels work.’
‘What am I supposed to do?’
She looked around wondering how to get rid of me. Her voice changed from singsong welcome to end of shift fatigue.
‘Do you have no friends to accommodate you?’
‘I’m trying to book a single bunk in a fourteen bed dorm room, what do you think?’
Visions of last night swirled in my head like a fever.
‘Can I at least have a mint?’ I said, gesturing to the bowl of sweets.
‘Not for you sorry. Guests only.’
I had been kicking about London for a few days – so far I’d joined a cult and brought down the art world (TBC). Friends had come down from Glasgow the night before – seeing a couple of familiar faces getting off the train was a comfort. There are times you see your friends and it is pleasant. There are also times when, without saying a word, you all know things are about to get silly. The handshakes and eyes said it all.
The boys were back in town.
‘Tonight we are rich men.’
We went to Covent Gardens for a binge.
‘Lets go somewhere fancy tonight.’
From a rooftop restaurant we watched the tourist ridden West End. ‘Keep Calm and Buy Shite’ shops filled the streets below, huge theatres with bright signs begged passers by to come in and keep the lights on.
The restaurant had no discernible features. No character. It was a feverish dream of luxury; unreal, forgotten upon exiting. But it rinsed me. Rinsed me dry.
Hungover, and with ten pounds to my name, I left the hostel. Old time music played in the cafe at St Pancras station, laughing clarinets and clicking beats. It was 2AM. I’d come in for some light and heat. Two men were sitting at a table without coffee – a couple of miscreants; fashionable clothes, strong bodies, scuffed elbows. Maybe debt enforcers. One was white, one black. Both masculine; stubbled chins and set eyes. They were high. The white man kept staring at his phone like it surprised him, then furiously typed with one hand. The black man gave him a pedicure using a wooden coffee stirrer and a napkin. He took the care of a lover. Their legs flew up and down like hummingbird wings – the white man kept going back to his phone, trying to find something. Maybe drugs, maybe shelter. Both wore caps turned backwards. Nothing existed outwith their nucleus of need.
The hushed hum of shoes on the hard floor passed by, people departing on huge trains to the continent. Everyone was trying to be somewhere else except them. They transcended the station, they were where they meant to be, they were in love. As that sentimental thought ambled through my mind, the white man looked up from his phone and noticed he was on the receiving end of a pedicure.
‘What the fuck are you doing Dave?’
Dave dropped the hand.
‘You know I can’t help it.’
They shared a smile, then both returned to their tasks.
Little dribbles of urine and blood decorated the pavement outside St Pancras, neither left on purpose. ‘Mad World’ escaped from the window of an electric taxi waiting for a fare, waiting for the world to catch up. Kings Cross station Lay between taller buildings; Inside, an old man pushed a buffer machine over the marbled floor under a single light. Further on the ugly yellow M of McDonalds stood out like a face tattoo, the streets below scabbed over with burger wrapper and brown bag leprosy.
The city’s arteries began to constrict at 2:30AM, the revellers Ubered away. A bradycardia pulse of cleaners, sweepers, and deliveries prepared the sprawl for its 5AM resuscitation. The morphine of dusk warmed, quieting the screaming and shouting. Rough sleepers snatched a few lengthened blinks, escaping for a moment.
I kept walking for something to do. An empty wine bottle stood on a street corner, rubbish overflowed from each wheelie bin like fat from a tight t-shirt. I reached Doughty Street and wandered past the Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens was slight – five foot two and slender. He had experienced periods of starvation as a child which stunted his growth. In later life, insomnia drove him to walk the streets at night. Much of what he saw inspired his characters and writing – the tenebrous city has many secrets. Everyone out that late has a purpose: be it work, revelry, or wickedness. The day is filled with flaneurs, the night is filled with urges.
Faces loomed out of the darkness, pushing pleasure.
‘Cocaine, MDMA?’ whispered a middle-aged man in a damp tracksuit.
My hand smelled perfumed – not its usual salt and skin. A prostitute had grabbed me in Soho.
‘You want to see me?’
‘I just want to sleep.’
Her eyes lit up, she had mistook my meaning.
Sex shop displays and neon lights urged passerbys to live life as they wanted. My sexuality felt non-existent – without the basics of food and shelter, fleshy pleasures seemed obscene.
A street sweeper pushed his broom along the pavement, passing by the drunk and the drugged like a ghost.
Building sites spread over roads and pavements like floodwater detritus. An ambulance flew by the end of the street, the brief blue light lit the homes for a moment. Someone’s universe was being ripped apart within, the wailing van contained a collapsing star. A couple were entangled outside The Royal College of Anaesthetists. They swam in each other’s arms, losing control like a spinning coin. Spending the evening drunk is one of the few ways to create a clear chapter end for moments in your life. Otherwise it just seems to go on and on with no full stop
An old man in patchwork clothes was talking to the sausages he fried on Holburn Street, asking them why they weren’t selling themselves. They hissed back. Two pop-up tents were down an alley, raised beside an electric car. I was glad there was two. In the few days I spent in London I saw a support network among the homeless. The able bodied took moments to care for those in desperate need, giving them half a fag and kind words. Poor souls lain on sleeping bag litters, their eyes avoided. Life at our ankles, killed by past trauma and starry nights.
Outside the Savoy Hotel, the Thames was level with the pavement. I passed a young couple sat looking over the river to Canary Wharf. The man began to shout in a Slavic accent.
‘Hey you, hi, hey you, stop.’
I walked faster but felt him follow. I turned and expanded my chest like a cockerel. His face was gentle.
‘Your backpack is open mister.’
My bag was open – I shut it and thanked him.
Walking away, the most American rom-com of epiphanies hit me.
They were in love.
With each other, with the river, with the night, and those with love filling their hearts have no capacity for evil. Folk only do bad things when they have no love left.
Exhaustion had rendered me emotionally vulnerable. It was bullshit anyway, all rhetoric and platitude. Of course you can love and do bad things. Hitler loved dogs, Stalin loved moustaches.
Walking through tunnels and under bridges were the only real moments of tension, whispers and murmurs bounced around walls like psychotic thoughts. I kept looking back to see what pursued me. Nothing but darkness.
I found a wallet between the headquarters of Scotland Yard and MI6. The owner was an Adam Rushton. Further to my investigation, he was twenty six, had used part of a Rainbows Nightclub flyer as roach, and still hadn’t passed his driving test. Scotland Yard was closed, so I put Adam’s wallet in my pocket and set off in search of a police officer.
A gang of cycle taxis were parked up on the pavement waiting for the late clubs to close. Each tricycle was customised with fairy lights and faded blankets, Bluetooth speakers hung from canopies. The cyclists were standing around one bike, smoking rolled cigarettes and listening to Eastern European folk tunes. One of them crouched and performed a slow dance. They didn’t notice me pass; only the crapulous and infatuated pay for such a thing.
Two police officers sauntered in front of the Houses of Parliament, deterring vandals as opposed to thwarting terror plots. The male with red hair reminded me of a cartoon chef, the woman seemed accountish. From afar they were imposing – close up they were ordinary folk wearing a costume.
I handed the wallet to the red haired policeman who flicked through the contents. He took the roach out and raised an eyebrow,
‘We can’t handle this, you’ll need to take it to the police station.’
He pointed me in the direction, then asked what I did.
There was shouting behind me at Whitehall. I turned to see a drunk lad swerving on a rental bike. He stood high on the pedals basking in the late air, the bicycle basket rattling gun fire. I took out the wallet and looked at the provisional license.
‘Adam Rushton.’ I shouted.
The front brake gave an excited squeal, the rear tyre lightened then lifted – Adam was now in flight. He spread his arms and glided upwards into the night before losing altitude. Touching down, he met the pavement with a thud. He lay like a skeleton in the desert. I crouched beside him and touched his shoulder.
‘Are you OK Adam?’
He stood up and wobbled.
‘How’d you know my name?’
His voice was vague southern English.
‘Have you lost your wallet?’
He patted himself down then realisation dawned. I handed it to him then he made me pose for a Snapchat story.
I turned back and went towards Buckingham Palace. The two police were still sauntering; they waved me over. I told them what happened.
‘Bloody lucky,’ said the red haired officer. ‘He would have never got that back if you handed it in. They all get chucked in the bin.’