1990: Step On
Just after midday I hurtled wild-eyed through Angel station as
if hunted by the wolves of time, rather than a few portly and
unmotivated ticket inspectors. I was late and broke; vaulting
the barrier I fell down the spiral staircase to the platform.
There was a smell of electric dust on the underground,
rumblings and coughs and tension. Above the humming
tracks and eyeless mice, an advert for life insurance with
numbers underlined asked: ‘What have you got to look
No-one was behind me so I slowed to a dawdle, slaloming
between suits and cases. There was a sexless junkie up the far
end of the platform in smackhead uniform: baseball cap,
jeans. More afraid of any potential embarrassment than they
were of the junkie, commuters split like the sea. They get a
bad press, junkies, but egalitarians all: colour, class, sexuality,
none matter. As I boarded the canister of light I realised that
I wasn’t even uninterested – I couldn’t even rouse that level
of feeling. London had deadened my nerve-ends.
At Euston, the northbound Northern Line splits: the Bank
branch rattles towards Camden Town, dosserville, while the
Charing X branch breaks for suburban-sounding
Mornington Crescent. The line map above oblivious heads
looks like a syringe: the Northern Line screws you up.
Morden at the sharp end, Mill Hill East the answer to your
Hanging onto a leather strap like a martyred saint I raced
northbound, still breathless from the chase. Then an
apparition: the Charing X line tube came into view, all those
disconnected faces like a machine full of ghosts. I wondered
what I looked like, grey plaster dust from head to toe, hands
rough, eyes bagged.
The escalator at Camden Town was broken so I climbed
silver steps slowly, waiting for a rush of commuters to surge
up behind me. There was no barrier, just as well as my jeans
had ripped at the other end. Secreting myself within a knot of
Japanese girls on a pilgrimage, taller than they were by a
head, it was more than the ticket inspector’s job’s worth to
challenge this wild-eyed scruff immersing himself in
Emerging from the guts a bitter wind blew city grit that
stuck to the tears in my eyes. Sucked into the street at the
World’s End, the sweet whiff of diesel and dope, denim, dim
sum. All the culture-tourists looking for salvation in poverty
and cool. I had little time for them, with their anachronistic
bondage and haircuts, their credit cards and mothers, but I
was too rushed to trip them up, to scream in delicate ears.
Tony waited with news; why here, of all the boozers in all
the boroughs? Could be worse: could be Archway. Through
Camden market, bootleg-sellers glancing nervously and
leather belts hanging like slaughtered snakes. It was raining
harder now, drawing out the smells of shop garbage like salt
draws blood from remnants of carpet; raindrops smashed like
syringes. The new batch of pissheads from Arlington House
sat outside the tatty supermarket opposite The Good Mixer:
no Jock, no Mick, no Cider Mary.
Tony looked out of place in the Mixer, in his good suit, his
well-cut hair, a tiny ’tache and his vodka glass before him
next to the coffin-shaped tobacco tin he carried for effect.
Seeing me in my steelies, dust flying off me like fag
smoke, Tony stood. “My round.”
When I shrugged Tony bought me a pint. I owed him over
eight hundred pounds; the knowledge was an uncomfortable
barrier between us – drinking conversations had to be
carefully skated round the thorny issues of that and every
other rainy day, until alcohol intervened and we adopted the
Jungian approach to money.
Hoping to find stimulation, I looked around the pub. How
many days and nights? Not just me but Tony, everyone in the
place. Was there nothing else to do? Every society, every
continent, had its place where citizens could gather to lose
their minds. What about Atlantis, Lemuria? Did they have
their escapes, or did their people have other, higher ideals?
*This is an extract of “Fire Horses” by M L Piggott.
“Fire Horses”: synopsis and quotes
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