Essex Road





So there’s a rat staring at me and the suitcase and he’s chewing on the remains of a pigeon. He’s got this stupid look on his face and then he laughs. He laughs at me, the little bastard, but I don’t give a fuck. I’m still under the protection of Our Lady of Essex Road and her blessed sacraments, which is no bad thing considering what’s inside the suitcase.

The rank air is smothering down here. The smell is brake dust, ozone and disinfectant. The disinfectant is only there ‘cos some sad soul threw himself in front of the Mill Hill East, yesterday evening.

A hot wind pushes past, curling its claws round Friday’s Standard and tossing it though the air like a spastic parachute.

I’m only wearing one shoe and my shoeless sock is soaking.

‘Think it’s funny, do you?’ I says to the rat.

‘Fucking nefarious mate, fucking nefarious.’

He takes another bite of his bewinged cousin and spits out a feather.

‘Cheeky bastard,’ I mutter.

‘What you got in there?’ he asks, pointing at the suitcase.

He doesn’t notice the rails shudder and the screech of brakes.

The train hurls in and screams to a stop. I’m sure I hear a squelching sound as the rat’s guts spatter the tiles.

‘Now that’s fucking nefarious.’

That’s the thing about London. You can live here for years and see some really fucked-up stuff and then one day there’s a talking rat. Still, he isn’t the weirdest thing I’ve seen in that last forty-eight hours. He’d have to have danced the fandango, spouting Nietzsche to make the top three. There’s not much chance of him doing that now, seeing as he’s lubricating the underside of the High Barnet train.

The doors slide open. Three hippy skinheads are thumping drums in the middle of the carriage, all orange-tinted bliss. They stop when they see me.

‘Hare Krishna brother. A beautiful morning. Hare Krishna,’ says the fat one.

‘Do what?’

‘Hare Krishna.’

‘Aye, and you.’

They start off again, with smack-head smiles and glazed eyes.

I decide to wait for the next train.

Mind the gap. Doors closing.

The Hare Krishna rhythm section slides away into the darkness.

This is London, my London, not your idea of it. Not that half-blind cunt on his pigeon-shit plinth; not the corgi queen and her redcoats; not the dead-wax film stars dripping their melted faces into the carpet; not the sparkle-queer pearly kings, blowing bubbles; not the museums full of stuffed things or the theatres full of roller-skating cats.

My London is the rats and the brake dust, the gobbed-green tiles and the torn Rizla packets, the stink of disinfected blood, the blue arcs of sparks in the darkness and the hurled wind of submarine trains.

They say this city isn’t a city at all. They say it’s a tumble of villages, all stuck together with a dog shit, spit and a five continents’ worth of half-eaten, ethnic take-aways. They say this isn’t a city at all and they’re right, but I don’t hold with the villages.

My London is an ocean dotted with a hundred thousand grey islands. Each has its own speech, its own language. The city suits, snorting Vim and yelling about the rush; the thousand shades of skin in silks and saris out east; the butch-tarts and their queer pimps out west; the ganja ghettoes full of sound and fury down south and the tree-lined Jewish accountants up north. Every island has its own tribes, its own bloodlines. Mine stretch back to the sweet turf fires and the corporation coal, to the red hair, red number plates and the red lemonade.

You might get to know one or two of these islands, surfacing from the submarines onto unfamiliar streets or stepping off the double-deckers onto wet pavements and a new selection of busty ladies advertising French lessons. You might get to know the street names and the pubs where you can score some blow, but you’d need a visa and comprehensive life insurance for most of these sodden stretches of concrete. Every island in this city has its own smell, its own taste, and its own footprints in the dog shit.

In between the islands are sluggard-brown seas, full of shopping trolleys, headless bodies weighed down with bomb-site bricks and sea monsters from the mind of Harryhausen’s lunatic cousin. They catch the monsters now and again down here in the tunnels, three-week old kebabs as bait and whale harpoons. The dead ones are stuffed into jars of formaldehyde and kept down in the dungeons of the Natural History Museum. The ones that get away leave trails of slime up the escalator handrails and piss on the benches. That ozone smell, that’s the odd wounded one frying on the lines in the dark.

This is London, my London, Mikey Sweeney’s London.

‘You didn’t say what’s in the suitcase.’

Somehow the cheeky little runt has managed to avoid getting splattered.

‘It’s a long story.’

‘I’ve got all day,’ he says, scratching his arse with the beak.

There’s nobody else on the platform. Just me and the talking rat.

‘Ah fuck it. Well it all started last Thursday.’

And I tell him.