A Matter Of Time
Originally published in Ambit
I’d like to claim that I’m getting a handle on things in the aftermath of what happened, but the truth is that they’re spiralling ever further out of control. These days, I’m not satisfied until the stars are wheeling above me and I’m weaving in and out of traffic, lurching at blaring horns and laughing in the wake of receding fists. It’s only a matter of time, my friends tell me, which is fine by me.
I’d spent the night in question at a strip club on the Grays Inn Road: a blacked-out boozer where the staff pass around pint glasses and collect one pound coin per punter every time a new girl appears on the makeshift stage. The bouncers are all double overhead, so everybody pays up, and anyway the girls are good: Eastern Europeans mostly, but lean and limber with glossy hair and immaculate teeth.
I stopped at the supermarket on the way there and paid for a Twix with two twenties and a ten, asking for the change in pound coins. By the time I left, not long after midnight, I’d drunk six pints – two for every hour I’d been there, plus a shot for each of the last three. It took me ten minutes to locate my bike and another five to unlock it, and by the time I’d turned onto Farringdon Road and narrowly avoided a collision at a red light by Charterhouse Street, I was grinning from ear to ear, gloriously out of control.
That was when I heard the seagulls. I looked up and saw them, a great wicker cloud folding in on itself somewhere between the neon and the night sky above. So sudden and unexpected was the wave of nostalgia inspired by their call (my grandmother’s arthritic hands fumbling with the wrapper of a Wall’s Cornetto, the asbestos plain of the Atlantic merging with sheets of falling rain beyond), that it was only when the horns began swearing behind me that I noticed the lights had turned green.
I took a left onto Ludgate Hill and began careering blindly in the general direction of those birds, the Masonic skylight of the Tate Modern on one side and St Paul’s on the other. I recalled reading about the cathedral that had once stood in its place: a gothic colossus that had become so debauched by the time of its destruction in the Great Fire (pagan orgies, shrines to bearded women gods and deranged horses sprinting up and down the stairs of its Medieval spire), that its fiery fate was viewed by many as divine retribution. Beside me, the same river rolled blackly onwards, its surface once again painted with light.
Somewhere between Mansion House and Monument I stopped, noticing that the shifting form of those birds seemed to hover directly above a derelict building halfway down a reeking, unnamed alley. The windows were all boarded up but the front door was unlocked, so I stashed my bike behind a fence and slipped quietly inside.
The first thing that hit me was the smell: the slick rot of dying fish, so powerful that it verged on noise. My stomach tumbled and I steadied myself against a wall until the evening’s drinks had ceased their infernal swirling. Only then did the rest of my surroundings fall into place: the perpetual drip of moisture from the ceiling; a faint light flickering at the bottom of a semi-collapsed set of stairs; and the rumble, distant but undeniable, of muttering human voices beyond. The banister came off in my hand as I took the first of those steps: I felt the rotting wood splinter and the wriggling of infinite insects within. I held my breath, and pressed on.
At the bottom of the stairs, illuminated in the shifting pools of light cast by countless pale candles, was a vast hall frescoed with graffiti and littered with crumpled cans. A hundred yards from me was a circle of chanting men, their dark red robes secured with ropes, their hands clasped and hoods covering their eyes. And there, in the centre, was a great glass vat containing the unmistakable form of the Bottlenose Whale that had supposedly died during rescue efforts on the Thames a week earlier. I heard a sickening squeak as it thrashed its broken body against the glass, one black eye seeming to settle on me pleadingly, and when the ringleader removed his hood to reveal a face strangely similar to Tony Blair’s, I let out an involuntary scream and bolted back up the stairs, the wooden planks splitting underfoot.
I heard a boyish voice pipe ‘get him’, and the clatter of a dozen pairs of shoes muffled beneath a chorus of ‘hear hear’s, but by then it was too late: I was already out the door and back on my bike and soaring beneath the enormous dome of the cathedral, the river swollen with sadness beside me.