1994: Cigarettes and alcohol
Leaving the pub, where Tony attempted to console the
inconsolable, I bought a badge of blue from an offie, then
walked back up Amwell Street just as the rickshaw man came
freewheelin’ down, looking for fares and trying to act
Blankly I drifted along Pentonville Road to Baron Street,
through Chapel Market onto Upper Street, which I hardly
recognised any longer: the Fox had gone, and so had the Pied
Bull. Even the portrait of that old bespoke tailor smiling
kindly as he sewed trousers had been replaced by a shop
selling irredeemable tat. Why does no-one make anything
Mixed with the drugs they still prescribed to make me feel
better, the absinthe was making me delirious. Colours were
coming back into my life, into my world-view, except too
vividly to focus, to separate their subtleties. Further along
Upper Street two little girls waited outside a shop. The
smallest, about five, was in a wheelchair and laughing as she
span around. The older one, who already had it all worked
out, looked as sad as an ancient. A businessman flashed past
on a unicycle; by the fire station doors a man leaned in
towards a window and a woman leaned out like a death row
scene, their hands separated by glass or adultery, or some
other barrier to happiness.
Outside Islington Town Hall I began to howl, causing
pedestrians to race for cover and pigeons to scatter. The
Tennants Super was reacting to the cold onion bhaji I’d had
for lunch, and I vomited into a bin outside a restaurant I’d
never heard of, then lay down in a comfortable pile of
vegetables, old news.
As I lay there, listening to the sounds of the streets, the
pulse of this city that had nurtured and ravaged me – and
seemed inclined to take me now anytime it wished – two men
ate Italian rabbit and polenta in the restaurant and debated the
future of our glorious nation. Now and then I’d catch one of
them look up at me where I slumped, lying in the gutter,
looking at the scars, and sometimes in whimsical and
preposterous moments I fancy that I helped shape their plans
for the future.
I knew, lying there watched over by these two men, that
political ideology is both prison and prismatic: it refracts and
it imprisons the truth. Maybe it was Presbyterian Brown, eyes
averted from his beloved, doing that odd thing with his mouth
as he nodded out of the window at the forlorn young man
adrift on the pavement; utilitarian Brown, reflecting on the
curse of booze, vowing then and there that he would do all in
his power to get the drifters and the dreamers back into work.
And then Messer Blair, his socialist principles – like
everything he said and did – warped out of any recognisable
shape by his faith, as black holes corrupt light from a
collapsing star. I sometimes like to think that when he saw me
lying there, as he discussed carve-ups and careers and wolfed
swan canapés, Tony resolved to do whatever it took to change
this unacceptable face of the country he loved.
And sometimes I wonder if either of those bastards loved
me, even just a little.
*This is an extract of “Fire Horses” by M L Piggott.
“Fire Horses”: synopsis and quotes
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