I’ve been doing this lately, leaving the flat when Luke’s at work, switching the phone to airplane mode. It feels like practice, like I’m building up to something.
London is skittish and excitable, a collective disquiet in the dusk. The fires have been lit and the air is cinder toffee and carbon. I’m following the dark gleam of the river Lea, the domes of light over Canary Wharf. No one knows I’m here and the feeling is sweet and weightless like candy floss.
I waited until Luke had crossed the square, disappeared on to Mile End Road, before I grabbed the ankle boots from the cupboard, dusted my face with bronzing powder. He’d left towels on the bathroom floor, a sheen of condensation on the walls. I rubbed a circle in the mirror, raced through the ritual: orange lipstick, copper eyeshadow, black kohl. The minutes had colluded with him as he paced and nitpicked in the hallway, I thought he’d never go.
Canning Town is there, a mute glow beyond the pylons and recycling plants of Star Lane. Visibility is patchy, a brownish fog rising from the marshes at Leamouth. The terrain is deeply ingrained, I could draw all its lanes and alleys if I had to, but tonight it plays tricks, forges duplicates and wrong turnings. I crisscross avenues of crashed cars and high brick walls, stopping sometimes to look through padlocked gates. There are yards inside yards, palettes burning like signalling beacons.
It should be easy to find Idris, to follow the map with the Ordnance Arms circled in black. The lines are scored deep, still legible in the half-light of stalled construction sites. Seeing him in September had caught me off guard; he was suddenly there in front of McDonald’s, eyes lasering through the crowds. I’d been out of circulation so long I’d started to think I’d imagined those years before Luke; they were like pages in a dream journal, marvellous and unreachable. But in the blue-white light of that shopping centre, with its auto-tuned pop and golden arches, they opened again, hot and immediate like an afternoon tryst.
How long is it since I ventured this far out? The city’s become foreign, unrecognisable, a hostile latticework of thirty-storey ravines and ziggurat hotels, new expressways and conference centres. I try and get my bearings, remember how we used to pull ourselves through here. Rathbone Market was the gravitational force, the centre of everything, now it’s unmoored, or buried, or moved somewhere else. A scrub of luxury flats is sprouting in its imprint, bone-white rooms spanning glossy hoardings.
I’m not sure why Idris wants to meet at the Ordnance. Last time I went past it had emptied itself out, purged itself of the dartboards and pool tables and become something else, a charity shop I think, with convex mirrors and three-piece suites and camphor-scented clothes. I expect to find rubble or glass towers on the brink of opening, but the shell of the pub’s still here, Sky Sports banner stretched like a hide over a tangled beer garden. There’s fog, dense bands of it, and the smell of burning tyres.
Music is leaching from the building, noirish and sexual, filigree formations undergirded by deep, reverberating foundations. I stop to listen. A machine-learned alloy of UK garage, decelerated Jungle. The song is stifled, locked up somewhere, plotting and desiring in tender, rippling waves.
There must have been forty of us last time we were here, in black mostly, sharp but unravelled. The pub had slumped disinterestedly between a pawnbroker’s and a lettings agent, but its location made it a significant meeting point for us, it held its own in a tangle of arterial routes. We assembled in the pool room before driving to parties, it was one of those places everyone knew.
There’d been someone else then, someone who’d blazed intermittently in cold, rayless stretches.
I try not to think about him because when I do my situation is harder to accept, the readjustment feels like a slow toppling. But he’d left after shocks, tremors in the landscape. Even now I can be ambushed by floods of colour, swarms of unexpected hues. A chanced-upon street can do it, or the scent of Tuscan Leather on a stranger’s skin. But Idris had always been present, more available than the one who came and went; our relationship kept us going through the winter, it staved off the dark.
The last place we lived was an estate in Stepney.
I spy through plywood boards into the tap room, the light thick and yellow like pine resin or treacle. The room divides and I’m reminded of those streets you used to see in museums, each window opening on to a frozen tableau. A saloon bar is reassembling darkly, like a flashback or a premonition. Blistered ashtrays and glinting optics, dartboards with the same punctures, the same woodworm formations. The ceiling is nicotine brown, a film of ochre with the raised pattern of the old paper underneath.
Idris had asked for my postal address when I saw him in Stratford. It was safer, he said, less visible. Since then, he’d sent me things: cards, drawings, maps sometimes, biro tracings of spectral architecture.
The London we’d inhabited was mobile and fluid, places you thought you knew would disintegrate then pull together at odd angles. Houses would last a few weeks, then rooms that contained the whole world, that encased all the ebbs and flows of our lives, would be packed up without warning, rebuilt somewhere else. Idris was always there, a recurring figure, sharp-edged and foregrounded like a cut-and-paste collage.
There’s a dead-end lane behind the pub, a cinder track with corrugated iron and pools of paraffin. It’s like a charcoal drawing, monochrome and still. The sound of fireworks carries from somewhere, south of the river maybe, heavy artillery in the black. Then my name, padded and remote, folded in heavy drapes. The outline of a North Face jacket, the sparking of a lighter, his face forming in the fog.
Idris, sepia under the security lights, umber glazed. His face reactivates forgotten currents; it emboldens me. It’s a long time since I looked so closely at a face that wasn’t Luke’s. Sometimes it feels like Luke’s is the only one, so vast it floods the walls and ceilings, oppressive and blank like the midday sun.
He hauls open the front door and pulls me up into the dinted Ford Transit. The gesture for him is a blink, an uncalculated, automatic thing, but as he reaches out I’m plunged into something black and oceanic. Sweetness, however fleeting, does this to me now.
It’s years since they evicted us, fifty flats all contested. We knew everyone on that estate, it’d been the knot holding us together. I’d woken one morning to green netting on the windows, builders shouting over a Makita radio. A song rattled the glass, Adele I think it was, round and round on repeat. The voice, sugared with American emotion, domesticated the men, de-fanged them somehow, but still I turned off the lights, spied out from the black. We’d lost ground by then, been scattered like seed pods across the city. Some of us were living on the North Circular, short-lived tenancies in exhaust-blackened semis; the council had planted leylandii to keep back the fumes, towering trees that blocked out the sun. You could see bedroom lights flickering like distant stars as you drove past. It wasn’t London, I thought, not when you got that far. Others had been shunted out to condemned blocks in Poplar. That was the dead end of it, really, the Aberfeldy Estate, a damp hive of lassitude and linoleum floors. I’d seen them carving tracks to the High Street for their little bags, waiting in the ash grove, messages pinging through umbels of ground elder. It was like those nature programmes on TV when something’s about to be eaten.
I’d lost touch with Idris after that.
The builders ripped out the forsythia, the yellow roses. That was the worst, seeing the gardens go. I watched them hacking vines of wisteria, laughing as they hurled mauve racemes into skips. The estate was eerie then, all the flats boarded up. Mine was the last one standing. I remember ice ferns on the window, watching them warp and shrink on the pane of glass. I remember burning my hand on the gas stove, looking from a distance as if it belonged to someone else.
There was a pub we went to, the George on Commercial Road, that’s where I met Luke. I liked the moles on his skin, his unfamiliar body. He worked in a bar up in Hackney, they had books there too, and a room with paintings and poetry readings. I’d never been, and he seemed affronted by that, as if it was a centrifugal force, an important cultural centre. When I told him about my work in the care homes he seemed surprised, not by the job, I don’t think, but because I hadn’t pretended to be something else.
Luke was good-looking that night in the George, helped by the post-punk look, the oversized suit and crew cut. His body was toned then, his face clearly defined. We started meeting for drinks in the East End, at the Approach usually, or the Palm Tree. Conversations swirled up then settled to nothing; there was a disconnect, acres of space where sparks should be, but he was predictable, I thought, and organised, as if this was a good thing.
He wanted me to know he cared about the problems on the estate, listened intently when I described the parade of irascible housing offers, the squalid tenancies they were offering. He told me I should come to his flat in Mile End, said I could stay as long as I wanted. It was like standing on a beach watching a giant wave advancing.
It’s warm in the van. I look at the silent, uncommunicative phone and wonder how many missed calls are trapped inside it. Idris hands me a can of Rubicon Mango. Before it would have been Red Stripe from a six-pack in the back. I ask him about the others, the ones who came with us to parties in Silvertown and Leyton and Hackney Wick. His face is animated, they’re coming out of the woodwork, he says, they’re back from the dead. He says it like a punchline, a mirthful and delirious thing. Then he’s telling me about empty houses near Barking Power Station, a new base they’re setting up there. As he lays out plans, discusses new strategies, I realise something fundamental has shifted in the last decade, unseen and unnoticed by those on the inside. New formations have begun to coalesce, an uncounted constituency distilling old grievances, honing negative ambiences.
We’re watching some blocks in Stratford, he says. That’s what he’d been doing the day I saw him, scoping out a new gated development. I’d forgotten this, the exhilaration in grasping the city as a coral reef, an infinite porous structure. After all these years of isolation, the sense of everything closing down, I realise the desire for a radically different life had never gone away: it had lingered, dark and glowing inside me like a radioactive fossil.
The ignition unlocks a pirate radio station, sudden envelopes of buzzing black. You know this track, he says, turning it up. The bass shudders through our feet. It’s brooding and pitch-dark, something from the time before. He blazes up a joint, and the smoke envelops us – lemon, poplar buds, and something else, oak moss it could be, or leather.
The traffic’s snarled, backed up to the bridge where server farms loom like monoliths. The van stops and starts in corridors of new developments. I fixate on the billboards, the images of opulent interiors:
READY FOR OCCUPATION.
The geometric armatures are fraying at the edges, crumbling into ladders of Edwardian terraces. I watch them unfold, graphite etchings of stone cladding and satellite dishes, bookies with their shutters down.
Idris taps rhythms on the steering wheel. He points to a block of brutalist flats and asks if I remember it. We’d gone in through a fire escape, the flats were conjoined. There were circular meetings and leaflets written in French, and vats of something bubbling in a back room, okra and chicken and sweet potato. They had the Great Mosque of Djenné on the walls, it looked like it had been sculpted from sand, a transcendent monument rising from the red earth.
I’d started to think I’d dreamt these places. For as long as I can remember there’s been the four walls of Luke’s flat, the dole office in Bow, the Asda on Mile End Road.
An elevated section of motorway, the A11 threading beneath the North Circular, stanchions receding like a processional avenue. The radio station loses signal, another reaching in, creeping scratchily then pooling like oil, dark and nacreous.
Tesco, Wickes, the Gascoigne Estate.
I worked there for a while in one of the towers, covering absences, colleagues on the sick. My patient’s name was Frank. The council referred to him as a ‘client’ but I couldn’t stand that, it seemed so callous somehow. It was my job to take him shopping, make sure he got something to eat.
There’d be rashers or a fried egg sandwich, then we’d settle into the morning. Frank was on a combination of drugs: his contentment lay in a narrow pharmacological bandwidth. During the day, he made meticulous constructions, entire cities, out of Meccano. These architectures exteriorised something; they were a psychic model, that’s how I read them. He developed his ideas through arrangements of girders and wheels. Two years I ended up working there, taking the District Line to Barking, walking from the station to the edge of the town.
Luke often tells me that if I had the discipline I could make more of myself. He doesn’t see much value in the work I’ve been trained to do, all those hours in care homes and day centres, it doesn’t have the requisite sheen of glamour. I could be something, he says, if I just had the vision, the right attitude. Luke exhibits his photographs in the bar where he works, close-ups of walls or derelict buildings or the river. His photos have an odd synthetic quality, as if the places he captures are plasticised, coated in strange toxic colours. The London he depicts is alien to me.
Idris is chatting about new lines between the Gascoigne Estate, the city and the container ports. No one we know lives there now, he says. I’m looking out at the grey point blocks and wondering what happened to Frank, dreading the thought of him inert and desolate. I still get flashes of his medication sheets in the night, wake up wondering if the new carer’s paying enough attention.
I’m cushioned against the door in my Puffa jacket, my head bumping against the window. Waymarkers spring out of the dark: the Shell garage, the Travelodge, the bridge over the Roding.
A smoked-glass building with heavy chains, padlocks around the doors, offices they never managed to let. It was recording studios when I worked at Frank’s, a pirate radio station there too. Idris knew the blokes who ran it. The rig was on a tower block on the Gascoigne, not Frank’s but another in his cluster. They showed us round it once. As we approached the entrance there was a high-pitched sound, must have been sine waves from the mosquitos. The lift was stuck and we climbed all the way to the twentieth floor. I remember the red-eyed lads smoking on the landings, nods of acknowledgement buffering the mosaic tiles. We stopped every few floors to look out across the city. London lay unfolded like an OS map, its intricate pathways visible like leaf veins or an insect’s wing. At the top you could see the whole span of the city, hazy and undulating with the river winding through.
There was a metal door, a landing with blue light. We were in with the lift mechanisms, steel cables winding. You had to edge around them. I remember a rectangle of black, dusty heat rising from it, no railings, nothing to stop you falling. It was like a gateway to another realm, with doors telescoping into the black, steel box faintly visible a hundred metres below. The lure of that vertical drop exposed a desire I’d refused to verbalise. My skin shivered, came alive, millions of shocks tingling.
They led us into a maintenance room with a plasterboard cabin hidden inside. You had to crouch to get in, a den musky with testosterone. Condensation dripped from the ceiling and extension leads coiled like bindweed under our feet. An exit sign cast a low green light and outlines sharpened in it: a broom fixed with gaffer tape, a metal ladder, a trapdoor. We climbed on to an icy rooftop and stared up at the sky, the pitiless bowl of the universe curving over us. Everyone went quiet then. You could see stars, constellations brightening and dimming. The city was flung there, black and blue, and the dots of light were us, strewn and disconnected.
Bestway Cash and Carry, Goresbrook Towers.
The van jolts over a fractured road, we bump and bang through Portakabins and shipping containers, scrapyards and razor wire. I’ve been here before but it was daylight then, men in and out of gateways, queueing for bacon rolls in steamed-up cafés. Now there’s no one, and the sky is ink with a band of green which must be a residue from the old power stations, an afterglow or a haunting, because they shut them down decades ago.
A goods yard, chambers under bridges, decades of velvet soot. Idris’s phone illuminates the path in front of us, iridescent slicks of sump oil – green, blue and purple like a magpie feather or a black pearl.
The new settlement looms ahead, an apparition, a speckling of lights on a coal-black ground. There are fires, men gathered around them, faces illuminated like a nativity scene.
The main building emits the low, flat buzz of an electricity substation. The windows are encased in perforated steel, incandescent dots teeming in them. The place is familiar, we must have been here once, when it was still functioning as a pub, when they still served Double Diamond in tulip glasses. We squeeze through a buckled fence, climb a metal staircase to a function room. There are Calor Gas heaters and builders’ lamps looping over plywood boards. I recognise faces, poorly defined at first, like drawings smudged and overworked: Idris’s mates from Ilford with their shaved heads and bomber jackets, Tonia who I shared a flat with for a while, crew from the parties in Silvertown.
There’s a crush in that room, a soupy, viscous heat. I’m drawn back into chattering, stretchy circles. They appraise me like a lost child, searching for evidence of damage, gazing into my eyes to check it’s really me. Then I’m in the blear of it again, vodka in plastic cups, joints stinking of lemon, a fug of dry ice. The sound system is juggernaut loud, it seizes me with a force I’d forgotten.
The hours are rubbery and unhinged and my routine is melting. Luke’s event reminders slide around like mercury.
The fire-escape door is propped open, Idris urges me out for an energising blast of cold. We stare out across the dim rubble, the scrapyards and incinerators. The Thames is somewhere to our left, we know it’s there because the lights stop suddenly, fall into a pitch black seam. He sparks up a cigarette and the smell is charged and tempting.
Fireworks leave negative imprints in the sky, complementary corrolas, and we try and guess where they’re coming from, Stratford I think, or Victoria Park. From here London is a dusky mountain range with red eyes surveilling every peak. The stillness lulls us into quietude. You can see all the way across to the Gascoigne, and for a moment, I’m in the flat with Frank again. I hear him loud and clear.
They couldn’t hear me. The words swam but the sounds were stuck.
There was noise. The TV and the Meccano and the voices coming out of the radio. But I knew one day someone would hear me through the din. You did, Kara.
Did you know I’d planted the words? I’d repeat them, whisper into the drum until you heard. The longer you stayed the easier it was to do it. Usually it was places I wanted to go, things I wanted to do. Like the brown leather coat, remember? We were quiet in the lounge, I’d seen it in the charity shop and I wanted us to go back and get it. I described it, said it over and over in the drum, and you turned to me and said, Will it suit you though, Frank?
I had a bond with you. Once I knew you could hear I sent more messages. I’d let the words go round spilling and echoing and you’d come to them eventually, across the distance. The longer you stayed the easier it got. In the end they came straight to you, didn’t they? And sometimes I’d send things you wouldn’t want, things you didn’t like at all, things I feel bad about now.
They called me mute, but they don’t use that word any more. They said I had a temper. They weren’t sure you’d cope. I’ve never hurt a woman, but sometimes, before, there’d been fights, I can admit that now. They put me on different drugs, they think I don’t keep track, but I do.
Me and you were on a level, Kara. We had an understanding. You didn’t make me go out when I didn’t want to, you’d leave me to build cities in the lounge. They didn’t know what I was doing, but you did. Each room was a cell of memory, a future episode. I furnished them with all the things I wanted to remember, and then, when I’d made a city with towers and spires and courtyards, I took it all apart.
I’m older than they think I am. At first they had me down as about forty, because my face is smooth and my hair is dark, but I think I must be nearly sixty now. They said my future was corridors and locked rooms, but you made sure I kept the flat.
I heard you talking sometimes, phone skittering off the table, breaking my concentration. You knew I didn’t like that, so you’d go and whisper in the bathroom. I could hear his voice though, Kara, I could see the grids he made with your hours marked in them, the Stanley-knife precision.
You did the Meccano with me. You knew not to interfere with the building, but you sorted colours, that was your job. I tipped a crate out on to the floor, it made a racket, then there’d be a heap of metal all cut with holes. We needed reds and whites and yellows in separate heaps. And that takes time to do. It was always quiet when we were doing this, no TV, just the radio in the kitchen. After an hour or two I’d make a suggestion and you’d pick it up. I’d say, Will we go to the market, stop for a while in the caff there?
I couldn’t go fast. They put me on all kinds of medications. They changed them all the time, always upping them and downing them and messing them around. You tried to keep me on the right ones, but sometimes I went black, through the ground, where there’s no cities, no worlds to build.
We had to use the stairs when the lift wasn’t working. I wasn’t fat but my body was slow. Those pills made me sluggish, I could see my face going big and round like a moon. You’d wait on the landings and look out of the windows. You have an obsession with London, but I’ve never been that far into it. At least I don’t think I have. They say I went when I was little, for a ride on a boat. Ma and Da must have been here then.
The drum is locked inside me. I’ve had a thousand tests with a thousand doctors and none of them have heard me.
I remember once we were going to the market like I wanted but your heart wasn’t in it, you weren’t really focusing. I must have sulked because you said Sorry Frank as you steered me into the caff. You bought me a latte and a chocolate eclair and tried to make room so I could get the words across, saying Go on Frank, I’m listening.
I wanted you to know I saw it all, Kara, you didn’t need to hide it from me. I saw him every time the phone rang, doubling and tripling and filling all the space. He wouldn’t leave you alone for a minute. I remember the day you moved into that flat with him, you said it was just for a while, until you sorted out a proper place. Even then you had doubts.
But I couldn’t get the words across, I was tired by then and it was all getting stuck.