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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

forward to?’

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

“Fire Horses”: buy it here


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