The Coast Watcher

       2001

The nice thing about being a private detective is that you don’t earn a lot of money. The trouble with money is that you buy things with it, and things stop you listening. In my profession if I stopped listening I’d be dead. Contrary to what is called our media image, most of the time we private dicks don’t rush around investigating things. We’re not industrialised like the boys in blue. We let things come to us. That means most of the time I walk down the road with a near-hole in my pants, listening.

I call this coast watching.

But let me introduce myself properly. My name is David Masterson. People tell me that Masterson a very old name and certainly I know my ancestors were Scottish hill farmers of that name for generations. My grandmother on my mother’s side told me that my family once had a manse in sheep country above Aberdeen. They were all very physical and most were hardy world-travellers. I was the only one who travelled internally. Some, who used the word “real” as a threat, called me a dead branch. They were the ones who wrote books about geographies and seas. I wasn’t very big and I didn’t like mountains and oceans very much. I stared into space a lot and was a bit of a runt, I suppose. They gave up all hope when I joined the British Police Force. My family all made money and became more Scottish than the Scottish. It was soon made obvious to me that my East End accent and lowly position in the world was not appreciated above Glencoe.

But I like the warmer climates. Before sleep I pull this nigger-city over my head like a cloak of forgetting. I am white back beyond Chaucer, but somewhere along the line I must have jumped ship.  If I moved back out of the noisy water hole in which I live, the silence above Glencoe would kill me. Noise is full of information. In white country the circuits would shut down and doorway drinkers, hippies in boxes, and old tramps with surprisingly good accents would be lost to me. I can only live and breathe where the half-dead assemble to cool out, where packs of dogs and equally dangerous packs of feral kids haunt railway-line bushes like something out of Lord of the Flies.

This is the last Friday in the second August of the new century, with 40-Hertz Carnival bass making both kidneys and paving stones vibrate. With a first fall of leaves settling on the Grand Union Canal, I take an up-river journey as a form of asking a question.

On this road, where the whore’s telephone-booth cards fade out on a radius from the city centre, a car (second-hand, or brand-new, according to the type of risk and the type of buyer), could cost as much as £5.

With the thought that a hired cut-throat could cost me far less, I pass through an air of roasting spices funnelling up toward newly installed police surveillance cameras. Their robot-eyes twist and turn, throwing off surprised pigeons that have not yet quite got the hang of them. The stout ram-proof base of one camera has bouquets of flowers tethered around it and this year’s slogan, “Big Broda,” marks a place of the dying of the light to a human link in a long inhuman chain. This one I knew, slightly. A street-level drug-dealer who got over-ambitious, his nerves burst a few hot forest nights ago. A long burst of 9mm caught him as he tried to run for the moon in his stolen Sierra. He fell out of the car and the last of his dole money flowed to the pavement with his blood.

Only feet away from the lost blood, the lost heroin, and the lost Benefit, Japanese custom-built buggies with high-raised rear chassis, and the obligatory bollock-wrenching bass beat, shoot out from still-cobbled alleys. The workhouses of Dickens contain multi-million-pound recording studios guarded by machine-guns, barbed wire, and gas-grenades. Beyond these fortifications on these last warm days, by cracked horse-troughs and abused drinking fountains, both dry since the age of Zeppelins, the drunks are piled asleep in the Victorian parks like the sculpted dead of a war memorial. Here, unwary newcomers sometimes pay a price for not knowing that any black man over forty years of age can be safely smiled at, but eye-contact with same below that age could well spill yet more blood across the cheap multi-coloured sugars piled high on the shop fronts.

Like the pornography which lines the top shelves of newsagents, the labouring gut is required to process such sweet-meats, pastes, gels, and powders throughout the labouring day. This is to sustain the burst-energy for the twenty-four-hour service, repair, and maintenance of the high neon-dome of the great city on the near horizon. Like the pornography again (which my wife Gloria says is the only planet-wide business without a single customer), these quick-fix pleasures are strictly chemical, designed with sharp rise-and-fall ramps and spikes between which the tasking is fitted.

Whatever happens, the production line must not stop.

What am I going to do today? Today, on the morning of the Sunday of the August Bank Holiday weekend, I’m going to try and find a woman. Nothing amorous of course, just a woman to whom a certain client of mine has asked me to deliver a message. When I say that the client in this case is Special Branch, the woman’s name is not known, and neither is her whereabouts, you see why coast watching is often my only alternative.

Strange, but this ancient procedure still works very well. My first step this morning will be to go and visit one Vince Carlson. He’s a man who sells information.  He is, like myself, another aboriginal, as it were. As such, he will of course know that I’m about to visit him since he knows that I know that he knows the name and whereabouts of the party I seek.

I can visualise Carlson now. Beneath a portrait of Tommy Herron he makes tea like a scared native by a forest pool, his eyes ready for instant flight.

We are known to one another. He is one of many I knew who earn a living in this way. I say he sells information but money is rarely exchanged. Carlson lives in an old barter world in which favours of one sort of another are the only coinage, mafiosi style. Usually these involve very complex transactions that often get young, ambitious policemen into trouble. No trainee of mine was ever segued to this world of multiple mirrors without at least two to three years’ experience of coast watching. It goes without saying that not many made the grade even at that rate. Against the wallpaper of life, they stuck like a thrown piece of suet dumpling.

Far too moral, they were self-righteous, looking down on the scum with whom they invariably had to deal. They asked leading questions and relied far too heavily on facts rather than personalities, a word that to them had degenerated to media and show business.

This guaranteed their rapid departure from my programme, if only to save their lives and the lives of others. They wanted to get it over with. In this they were moderns. They were not willing to participate. They were no more interesting in risking the sacrifice of a little bit of themselves than a worker was on a production line. They wanted brilliant and profitable careers and the lavs and locks, the corpses, pain, ditches, and blood of a coast-watcher’s world were not for them.

With such in mind, I pass builders’ skips topped with the last generation 486 PC clones. Says Gloria, ten years ago (which some say is an infinity in consumer time) the skips contained countless discarded record players and the last green-screen computers. According to Gloria, before those particular machines of pre-Web dream time, the same skips were full of the golf-ball typewriters she would have killed for when an innocent.

Technological innocence is as good a measure of time as any, I suppose. Older aboriginals than myself tell of skips brimming with the first temperamental non-standard videos and before them, the last generation of reel-to-reel tape recorders. I expect the skips of the future to be full of the “video quality” feature-films, here stacked by the sugars and the porn.  Once I was told that these were works that “had not made it to television.” It is as difficult to believe that there’s something not good enough for television, just as it’s not easy to believe that life still exists in the folds and impossibilities of these districts. But then I‘ve seen patches of lichen climbing the smoked-glass cubes of the half-loved, half-cursed Big City, a few miles down the road.

This area is a fast-breeder of urban mythology. Only a month ago Chief Inspector Charlie Brown gave the “conservative” estimate that guarding the numerous heroin and crack factories within the twenty high-rise “dwelling modules” of the local Beethoven Burb City, there were at least 200 modern automatic weapons. The Inspector said that recently more weapons had arrived courtesy of British Rail. They had been packed in their original factory grease complete with ammunition, accompanied by fifty illegal immigrants packed equally tightly as the guns along with their dead—that is, fifteen in all.

The guns and the living and the dead came from a place that Charlie Brown and the rest of the world now called Eastern Europe. This was a new country that stretched from Berlin to a thousand miles beyond the Urals. It consisted of nothing but polluted and irradiated plants and old battlefields beneath which lay the sixty million corpses of two wars and two philosophies.

Charlie Brown struck a lighter note when, with an unusually wry smile, he added that, according to information received, the guns came complete with suspicious ammunition with Chinese markings and instruction manuals, apparently translated by biscuit weevils with serious personality problems. The good Inspector Brown rounded off by adding that the frequent jamming of such illegal weapons was of some comfort to his SWAT squads, if of somewhat less comfort to the very few Beethoven Burb City tenants with legitimate rent books.

The front facade of the Assembly Rooms is a mass of up-dated slogans: Animal Rights and an indecipherable blur about AIDS just beside a faded scrawl about Nicaragua. These Rooms have seen hell-fire sermons ordering scores of thousands of starving prostitutes, lost children, and the parish destitute, to report to Woolwich Arsenal where there was “decent” work for them. That meant slowly choking to death on lignite, dying stained yellow from head to foot, or filling shells for the great offensives of the Western Front. Only the eternal Salvation Army hostel is the same, with a crew of Scottish and Irish stewed-apple faces giving up the beer for an hour and taking their free sarnie of reject-pork, for which they’re asked to thank God.

I pass the boxing club, DSS furniture store, the street stripping of a lorry engine, and a burnt-out motor cycle. Four chained mountain-bikes with wheels and saddles long stolen, announce a tiny Post Office in which a terrified Asian staff cower behind thick glazing and iron bars. A line of shuffling Welfare penitents from the four corners of the old Empire here collect Benefits for area-sickness, area-madness, and general area-decrepitude and disorientation. The last English faces, some of great character, dot the crooked line like fallen angels queuing for petrol. The faces that followed Lionheart and Harold. Some had the lope of Cromwell’s pikemen and one or two, the resigned calm of the grandsons of the last of great Victoria’s engine drivers.

Why do I come to this domain of pain and despair, this place of fire-brigades, police-sirens, burglar alarms, shrieking ambulances, bad tempers, and the all-pervading smell of the cheap fried food of the eternal poor? Well, as I said, I come to listen. Which means I just sit at my favourite table at the back of Safari Tent caff and the mysteries of the loves and hatreds of this place whisper to me. Amidst the curses of breakfasting builders and snatched staff lunches and the dinners of worn-out travelling salesmen, I listen to excruciating forest-floor panics, mountainous loneliness; I hear tribal lamentations beyond all belief.

As a scribe (yes, at the end of the twentieth century I am called such frequently in the Safari Tent), sometimes I am asked to write letters for folk who come in here. The letters are always declarations of either love or hatred; nothing much in between. I assume they go to some long-abandoned address which was once the retreat of an emotionally marooned waif, some pathetic scrap of an almost-nothing who has disappeared beyond sun and moon. Letters to Infinity I call these, penned for a few natives amidst half-heard cries from other tables. Help me, save me, I hear. Find him, find her, find it, find me, and you-find-me-him-quick. Or him not-to-find-me-ever.

So amidst everlasting farewells and on a river with limitless turnings, I watch the coast and, amongst the best yams, sweet-potatoes, and watermelons in town, I write letters dictated to me by semi-literates just as I did thousands of years ago.

My trainees in detection (being much more modern creatures of inclined plain and lever, water-wheel and iron-smelting) have difficulties with coast-watching. To them it is largely an almost annihilating waste of time. Listening very carefully to the elementary tick-tock of crude human substance that is often of little moral worth, not to say frequently obnoxious, demands much patience. But I tell them, that’s where the signals are; pass your fingers over a pane of glass in the dark and try and find the crack: watch the street-sweeper, talk to the dustman, buy an ancient waitress a drink and ignore the young and pretty one for a change. You learn a lot that way.

What signals, they ask? Acknowledgments, say I. Of what, say they? Of questions asked, say I. They scream, What questions!  Any questions you like, I say.

Accusations of obscurity and mysticism fly at me. What I say means nothing, they shout. Too general, they scream. I tell them I sympathise. As moderns they need specifics. Like nomads who have just discovered time and Coca-Cola, they’re heading rapidly towards planning, preparation, and the plots of Progress. One knows the name of their next great adventure—it is called Factual Explanation. Treading on its heels and wringing its hands like Shylock, that’s the Real. In vain do I tell my trainees that the Fact and the Real they worship are rather arriviste deities. But they are gods, nevertheless. For as every lab technician will tell you, they demand countless millions of animal sacrifices and (as many are beginning to suspect) not a few secret human ones, at that.

But now, by yams, gourds, and green bananas, another wall-shaking bass turns all thoughts to frenzy and wipes such coast-watching thoughts from my brain. Mid-tones surge in my almost-white gut and a high treble chill loosens fillings. Tom-toms, bass-drums, steel drums, their beats jagged and smooth, some uplifting, others almost annihilating, pour from houses, gardens, garages, and shop-fronts. Carnival is coming to the last long weekend of August, with its fusion of hot blood and the high spirits of the rapidly cooling earth. More than Christmas, Carnival marks the beginning of the turn of the Harrow Road year when all ghosts and stories, all confessions, and confrontations change the colour and thickness of their pelts and begin the great trek to winter grazing.

In a few weeks’ time the oncoming dark of the late year will quite defeat the last Carnival air. Then the pavements of the Harrow Road, now piled high with the last of summer sugar for body and mind, will vanish and the place will have the pre-television harshness of the old gods of stone and of steam, thatch, and barrow, and hill.

A cloud of infants in silver space suits run past the doorway of the Safari Tent. Over the road a twelve-foot puppet is manhandled onto a float. In CostCutter and BestSave over-weight, well-clothed nouveau-poor are stocking-up for the coming celebration. I envy them. Unlike myself, most of them have clear pictures of anything and everything. They fix their own belief-threshold. I have never been able to do that. They cut the grain of their seeing at a certain level, turn all stories into the high-sugar protein of the television-fat lying like Strontium 90 in every single cell of the post-war gut. Belief-sugar makes them happy. They like their editing done for them. They have come to love not Big Brother, but the cool equivalent of equally loved neat beginnings and neater ends, which are infinitely more dangerous. I wish I had their peace of mind. I have never been able to make that kind of silver-screen adjustment. I am a grain-junky. I fix on story-edits. I look at the rubbish on the studio floor, and wonder. The main feature is of absolutely no interest to me.

When coast-watching I collect such neat edits and compare them with other items of convenient neglect, other scrapped pieces of conceptions so scandalous they’ve not made it into the main advertisements. I compare and I watch for the moment when the grain begins to change. Then I know that the stories are about to let in a piece of tat that wasn’t allowed previously or that was not regarded as true, real, or factual. I also watch for the death of stories, those tales which can no longer keep up the appearance-schedules: the headless ghost, the spirit voice, the scientific “fact” of yesteryear, or the notion of pure accident, which Thelma says is the most outrageous single Big Lie of our time.

I guess that, once upon a time, this seeing of the universe as one vast editing-machine told me the exact moment to pounce when a fat rabbit ran out of a hedge or when a rush of leaves across the forest floor meant that I was in danger of becoming a fat dinner in turn.

That I reason by what is left out, rather than that which is included, is to reverse the flow of Western time in the Harrow Road in late August, to make this part of the coast permanently unstable.  Here, yesterday disappears very quickly.

I make my way to The Safari Tent through three sets of road-drills on new and quite separate excavations. Overnight there has been a water-main burst and the failure of a new set of traffic lights. By ladders, ropes, and surging generators, the video store happens to be moving to bigger premises a block down. A new supermarket’s opening up, carpenters and glaziers work on a new wine-store and newsagent; roofers’ tar-pots bubble and a Chinese cook with a cleaver chases a gaggle of laughing black youths out of a restaurant.

Tariq of the Safari Tent assures me that the meat is Halal and not “deceased” British beef. I welcome the quip as, amidst a roar of machinery, heavy vehicles, swearing scaffolders, and the smell of Tandoori and tar, I order the religious food and open my early edition of the Evening Standard.

Apart from a couple of inches about something called the Economy (says Thelma, now a concept almost as distant as the Corn Laws) there is a multi-page nostalgia section on the late Princess. Time floods back. Here are new revelations about old taps on her mobile phone whose bulk and extended aerial makes it look like an old Army radio. Here are sections of her leaked correspondence, a look-back on her tour of the world’s minefields, and a marvellously comic description of her dead lover, the son of a man more corrupt than British beef —or so says the article.

I note that, even after all this time, there’s no mention of the absence of a British police investigation into the death of this once rather prominent British citizen.

As if in warning reply several pneumatic drills now destroy all such heretical thoughts. The time I live in holds every single cerebral strand in utter contempt. Like its science and like its murders, the time I live in doesn’t like being looked at too closely. Of all times, none have been so murderous for the thinker. Like the communism it first embraced, the century drags out the Contemplative from his festering nest and places him in that ring of blistering noise euphemistically called the ordinary.

But I want to stay a displaced person. Still in shock after the last War (although born twenty years after it), I prefer dossing in an eternal transit camp like the Safari Tent, which is as good an image of mind as I know. When I come here I know that, despite the very best efforts of science and socialism both, nothing normal will walk through the door. “The normal,” says Thelma, “is a systems-lie, the ultimate in political terrorisation.”  Sometimes I worry about her.

I grieve for her and order tea and a suspect hamburger.

The Safari Tent is one of the few places left where completely untasked thinking is just possible. The great libraries my daughter tells me to go to are intimidating and no-one can think in the noisy muscularity of the pub. In the Safari Tent nothing is ever expected of a customer. I am free to watch the to-and-fro of living story-frames who pay their bill, eat greedily, and read about the long-dead Princess. These glimpses of lives and minds, of bodies and various appetites remain in my mind as the unfinished outlines of half-built cities. Like the life of the Princess, these people around me will become projects abandoned in time: the road leading to nowhere, the unfinished arch, the frieze whose carving is not complete. Like the re-scripted branch-line of a soap-opera these story-archaeologies are unique to city states—not so much when the barbarians came but when resources run out: spirit, flesh, money and ideas; will, youth, love and memory. Changed shapes and new ideas ride into town through the door and then the possible story of a part-life is only complete in my mind, like some grainy abstract, a Greek city-square scratched on a rag of vellum, for which only a few statues were ever completed.

That’s what I see in the Safari Tent. And I think it was once possible to reason with these moving slides, to explore with them instead of facts: “those terrorising loin-cloths of the petit-bourgeoisie,” my daughter Thelma calls them.

Sometimes I thank the Gods that there is now no Party she can join.

Dreamers come to these early morning places. Some are wandering shades, thrown out of institutions whose various names inevitably contain the word “social.” A few such spend most of their time staring into space. A single cup of tea is their license for a long period of meditation before being asked to move on..

I greet a shy older man who spends most of the time staring shiftily at the ground. His name is Johnson and Tariq once whispered that he’d been a chemist of high repute. But apparently, just like an old communist, he had been taken from some politically incorrect chemical discovery and banished to body deodorant-improvements for a private firm. Others say that he became the leading expert on after-shave in the country, which was just before he tried to kill himself.

My daughter knew his name. She told me that before Johnson’s exile to his intellectual Siberia and before modern Auschwitz personnel (Thelma always refused to call them doctors) had convulsed his depressed brain with voltages  Johnson, as a grown-up scientist, had measured an almost-important part-something. But this almost-something refused to be measured fully again, important or not. This thing (whatever it was) was three-quarters-measured in Japan, just about five-sixteenths-measured in Switzerland but not measured at all in the USA. Finally an official line had averaged out that the thing Johnson claimed to have measured, he had not measured at all: since a thing of changing measures, or at least part-measures, could not possibly exist.

Refusing my offer of another cup, Johnson got up to go, looking like the notorious half-thing he had almost half-measured—he was myself grown old. In my humble way I too, tried to photograph the impossible. But like Johnson’s measurements my pictures were grainy; they were equally insubstantial glimpses of a White Rabbit, Big-Foot footprints of fast transient events.

Eventually would the staff smirk at me as they now smirked at Johnson as he shuffled through the door? As a bit of a joke myself, I see scientific progress as arrays of opposed jokes, always the same covered-wagon horse-jollop where only the colour and shape of the bottles change. Johnson’s work had been highly original and imaginative. But the twentieth century had had a great problem with the imagination. Dictators try to annihilate it, religions to control it, politicians to censor it. Left-wingers hate it, psychologists try to change it, media castrates it, and science mistrusts it completely. But for something which produces things which do not exist, the imagination still packs a mighty political punch.

The devastated Johnson turns in the doorway and looks at me, a young scientist already fallen to dust. He becomes Scientific Man at the last exit-gate of his century: isolated, troubled, lonely without Communism, deeply disappointed, and desperate for loopholes.

I no longer call such still and moving-picture stories as Johnson true or false. If I have to classify them at all, I do it according to how grainy or how badly focused they are. I do it according to what frames have been purloined, lost, or become so time-weathered that they are indistinguishable from the grain on an old garden wall. I try to get what frames are left into optimum focus. Many different stories come into the Safari Tent every day. Some are almost clear, but never completely.

Only yesterday I took in some similar reject-footage from Tariq along with some part-fogged frames about a group of green humanoids atop the T S Eliot Block of the Estate. I’m a sucker for this stuff, particularly when it comes from such marvellously named towers. The liberal hope that the inhabitants of such places know or care who T S Eliot was, is one more marvellously fogged twentieth-century frame of perception.

This fairy-picture nestles in the museum case of my mind alongside the Harrow Road UFO sighting. I bought that tale a month ago for the modest price of a sausage-sandwich. It was an over-exposed waif of a single-shot story which nobody wanted. I was so excited, I thought I had found the ultimate: a completely black print of a story with no grain at all. A complete, pure, unadulterated untruth.

Using my old pre-Modular grapevine I got the Heathrow Tower staff to admit observing a something which did, indeed, execute a right-angled turn about a thousand feet above Runway One at an estimated 5 thousand mph. Not bad, that. Other sources sent me a copy of the thirty-second radar video but, as with most things UFO, it got lost in the post. I don’t know what this entity was, but I was disappointed by the Heathrow claim. My prize frame of an absolute untruth, on closer examination, had spots all over it. Nevertheless this print was still pretty dark compared to the claim in a popular magazine that what the staff had seen was a panicking flight of lost and disoriented pelicans.

Later that week, these jet-propelled pelicans turned into a coolant leak from a nearby refrigerator factory and the green humanoids turned into a face-painting session by the Socialist Workers Party. Later the refrigerating factory disappeared but the humanoids remained. A woman was later that day found floating in the canal. Her face was green. She worked at a refrigerator factory but it was thirty miles from Heathrow. The stream of escaped coolant must have been as fast and as lost as the crazed pelicans. But within two weeks all elements of this rapidly cooling story vanished, as did the recorded trace on the radar, and the package in the post. Soon, my wife says, all that will be left of me will be stories. They’ll have taken over your brain, your eyes and your dick, she added whilst power-dressing for another assault on the Real.

The city is a sea of stories, and all stories are drugs. Inland, on the mountains, I would die of a switched-off story-screen, yearning for the pagan ravishing of old tidal salt and the impure burn of marine-oil. Below the heights, in these sluggish tidal waters as at the world’s beginning, each cycle of sun and moon breeds a fresh crop of primal tales. Some of these, as new and experimental forms, flop exhausted to moist ground ready for the next designer-joke, the next piece of whimsy, be it finned, winged, or armoured.

Other stories are floodlit liners or fast craft without lights; many more leave no droppings or sonic boom; yet others leave pelts collapsed like balloons, sucked dry of all internal matter. Countless others leave the waking recall of needles, beams, and examinations by insect-eyes. But one and all come as almost-reports of half-rumour, disintegrations of both doubt and certainty, corrosions of claim, fact, belief, and solidity.

These things have claimed my love. I cannot leave these almost-animals on the verges of creation, though I know that some of them are little more than hand-stitched god-ideas for universal carnivals to come.

A beast calling itself a Mackinson Eight-Ton Channel Digger passes the door of the Safari Tent. Once more all thought is scattered as the thing scrapes out a two-foot trench where thick veins of fibre-optic cables will soon be buried. More stories are coming. Of higher quality, faster, more accessible, better financed. More images are being manufactured. More choices, more metaphors, symbols, scenes, pictures, and episodes are about to arrive. But the only thing this attempt by the intelligent and well-meaning to improve all our lives achieves, in this initial stage, is the covering of my burger with dust.

I suppose my mind will come later.

Tariq wipes the tables, is apologetic, and fries fresh burgers all round. The restaurant gets compensation from the council he says, from loss of trade and the spoilt food. Next week the Digger will be on the other side of the road and things would not be so bad then, he adds with glee, as it will only affect his rivals.

I accept his offer. A youth wipes my table. My Evening Standard is put back carefully onto refreshed murk, glistening like stretched tarpaulin under a monsoon. Page after page of limitless praise and worship of media, theatre, and showbiz stars forms a perfect sponge, complete with no less than four mentions of Martin Amis in one rag.  

The Safari Tent now absorbs in turn a blur of similar tiny elves and gnomes, all screaming for fairy-food. I can’t tell my soggy Standard pages apart from this costumed brood in rehearsal for the Children’s Carnival. Wailing and shrieking at the counter are dwarf copies of Cowboys and Indians dotted with Marilyn Mansons and Beyonces, who scream for spoilt-brat fast-comfort food. Tariq and his assistants run around dispensing squirt-plop food-approximations to these approximations of quite other devourers.

The tiny dream-figures now have their pirated coke-versions, their new-food-technology banana-shakes, and nameless laboratory-coloured liquids or nursery sauces. These are the contributions of play-food and gunge-technologies from the “dedicated” (how that word has fallen) “scientific” (how that word has fallen, too!) “research-centres” of several continents or perhaps (as Thelma says) those words should be replaced by corporations. Soon, the newly buried fibre-optic cables just outside the door will in their turn squirt-plop their “real” (how that idea has fallen) equivalents into slot-and-cable minds.

The flood-damaged Evening Standard reprints a “Blower” cartoon showing the Princess greeting a resurrected Elvis Presley. Printed a few days before she died. Presley steps out from the lowered ramp of a landed flying saucer in all his rhinestone glory, a trail of slit-eyed aliens behind him.

Tariq obligingly places my fresh burger atop this cartoon, in the late twentieth century tradition of not letting anyone pursue a line of thought longer than the length of a text. The underside of the plate quickly obliterates Princess, aliens and Elvis, in a thin sludge of a hundred scaffolder’s breakfasts: dots of toast, curls of fried onions, and other formula-generated damp specks of tone-chart calibrated colours. Tariq apologises at once, and quickly whips away my entire set of useless visions and interpretations. He runs, brings me another Evening Standard immediately.

But this Later Edition contains not one mention of the Princess.

I am now a fully baptised modern citizen, with my religious food and my brief memories of a Princess erased from print like a vanished communist official of old, murdered if only in the cause of entertainment—the only cause we have left. I miss the Princess. With an effortless touch of her wand she turned all experience into obliterated cartoons. Commanding at the time almost the entire field of story-information, she turned cycles of product, consumption, and belief into one junk frame after another.  

But she ran too fast. The world can just about take the instant food, but instant history is too much for any psychic indigestion.

The Digger explodes into life but, as if it has read my thoughts, with a last groan and clank its tired diesel gives up the ghost again and the machine blocks the road. Behind it is a line of Carnival vehicles followed by a line of horn-blasting cars and lorries, and various other lost floats. To while away the time, as the Digger crew try to bring the dead engine to life, the steel-drum band on the first float with its mass of fish-headed figures decide to do a little rehearsing. The appearance of no less than three police helicopters at this same time turns the Harrow Road into a clashing urban inferno: machine and dreams become one as drums beat and powerful diesel stops and starts, howling and trumpeting like a mammoth in a staked pit.

The costumes of a modern brain’s collage-turned-inside-out pass by: Aztec gods, hot orange tropical birds, children’s bodies dance by huge jungle-creature heads; cardboard tropical suns shine over flashing spears; naked bottoms and bronzed thighs perform intensely sexual gyres, flanked by lines of very Gilbert and Sullivan pissed-off coppers.

The Carnival figures all dance along to the first time when fantastic forms stalked the Earth and there was no crumb left of the rational time of the industrial project, the structural achievement, the time of the “breakthrough” or “advance.” This is a willing destruction of all things rational, communistic, and industrial: a time of the pure imagination in which James Dean and Marilyn Monroe gyrate around pterodactyls and mammoths, or Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson with alien-forms and ufonauts.  History was become these Star-Faces which spring directly from the age of primordials, as if between them and the death of the Dinosaurs there’s been nothing.

No one dances with a scientist. That split-second of time which was all cerebral extension, it proved quite powerless before these faces of animal-gods of stage, video, screen, theatre, whose first boulders knew no fact or measure, no angle, weight or pressure.

Lack of the tensile, the solid, the tangible—panic attack! I’m going to fall through the table in front of me. The images now outside the window of Safari Tent have power to challenge all prior advertisements of certainty and solidity.

The workmen swarm all over the digger. They have tools and technology, they have application and focus. Part of my mind is with them. Carved and hollowed and lined, my very substance lies in their wrenches, drills, and hammers. But I’m abandoning them, the insubstantial pulls me away. I’m falling in love with the totems of stick and paper, the stories that are wastes of time. I am coming to know that WorkMan is on a road to nowhere. Steel struts are always better than his arms and legs, plastic is better than his bones and teeth, and computers will eventually be better than his brain.

Part of me, another part, is the kind of chattering, clattering, farm-robot of a Darwinian form now crawling over the Digger.

I never liked WorkMan. WorkMan, like the Digger, is programmed to break down in sequential steps. The only thing WorkMan knows as he lays down our tired labouring engine-heads each night is that at some time he’ll wake and the planned obsolescence of a particular component will have come to pass. And it will be no use trying to account for this in terms of Thelma’s ideas of tragedy, destiny, or purpose, for almost certainly one of the rats in the sewer below him has just experienced the same failure of almost exactly the same component, and that poor animal hadn’t heard of the things my kids talk about: Hamlet, Hegel, or even Aristotle. Or perhaps both rat and WorkMan can think themselves lucky. Because some labourers and rats have been born without the right part-numbers in the first place. As Thelma once said, fitting the lack of an anus into the nice concept of hubris would have given the Greeks many an amusing evening of extra-marital considerations.

I suppose the only thing a WorkMan ever knows in his brief life as a unique species is that he is slowly being tortured to death. From the top to the bottom of WorkMan’s social scale the Darwinian struggle was not love, art, ambition, glory, or wealth, it was solely to find a method of getting away from whatever boss-man’s design-curse has been laid upon him since birth. An accident, illness, the ruthlessness of any kind of peasant camouflage, the calls of nature, deliberate sabotage of the production line, or even the late historical development of the endlessly wasteful possibilities of democratic discussion, will do. Lies, murder, gross deception, corruption, the terrible dangers of the really fast lanes—WorkMan will do or risk anything to get away from the hell of the field, the machine, the tribe, the project, the great Pyramidal Plan, the drug of responsibilities, or the lies of tasking.

Like the Mackinson Eight-ton Digger, WorkMan is doomed. I look upon his shed, scaled skin on the ground with no regrets. I’m moving towards the cardboard gods slowly, carefully—picking my way amidst the minefields, if only in the knowledge that their betrayals can never surpass those of the Gods of solidity.

A respectable dowager enters the Safari Tent, slumps on a chair, and fans herself as if on a dig in old Sumeria. She turns to me, speaking in a voice of one of those best-selling authors of novels about tea-times, train arrivals, village detectives, and things found in potting sheds.

“Wonderful. Perfect. Theatre in Action, yah?”

Her head is another twirling surveillance camera. She says she is an anthropologist and convinces me completely as her fête-opening voice struggles to stifle her authentic English terror at the whole proceedings.

“Living theatre. Absolutely marvellous. What a lively culture!”

Back on some Empire veranda in 1860, I imagine her watching the local mud-hoppers and thanking her God that she was near a barracks, had a good supply of fresh river-stoned linen, her last jars of Coopers’ Oxford marmalade, and a stack of Major “Sapper” Jackson’s Flea Powder. This unconscious, almost innocent racism is one of the great last Victorian spectacles of Upper England. Anthropology couldn’t possibly “happen” in Worthing, Bath, even down-market Blackpool, and especially in the equally down-market university where this woman said she worked. Anthropology only happened to mud-hoppers and the further away both Anthropology and the mud-hoppers were, the more accurate and less offensive they became, in that order. But this is the Harrow Road and this over-weight, sweating prize doesn’t know quite what to do yet with her Anthropology.

She questions me. She wants information (that word again), about “ethnic” (she’s caught that disease, probably from the “quality” press), wage levels in relations to rents, in relation to amounts spent on different costume themes, or how those costume themes are developed within the different parts of extended “racial” family structures. I like to hear this social-democracy ticking away, complete with its mildly fascist undertone. “Information” on the “coloured” population is being produced as a kind of limitless comic texture, cut up and put in Christmas-crackers to be given to the worthy, sensible, and well-intentioned. It’s already a vast industry. She says she has a lot of “notes” in relation to “gender-attitudes” within “immigrant” structures and she is studying “whether such attitudes are changed by private or community funding.” It is all good Anglo-Saxon gobbledy-gook, ritualistic as a carnival float but a damn sight less sexy.

She now lowers her voice slightly to speak to me and, having met a few of her type before, I have a guess at what was coming. Indicating a passing Carnival costume, her voice becomes hushed.

“Have you have you ever…er…come across shamanism here?”

I knew it. She was a sucker for gods.

“I thought you’d know about things like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t that how titles come about in the first place?”

“Oh, now you’re being silly!”

I had come across this before during Carnival. White liberals descended, looking for mysteries. This one would have been far better off looking at how her university was founded, and just who financed the science departments’ projects. There were shamanistic mysteries enough there, alright.

“Do you mean white shamanism?”

She looked aghast, as if such a thing were inconceivable.

“I know a violent criminal who puts a pile of old Diana Dors plastic handbags in their original wrapping before his ever-open door as a charm.”

Recovering soon, she laughed heartily. I liked her. She was a piece of Old English Right Stuff, gone with Beatrice Webb and Nancy Astor.

“Does it work?”

“I have yet to see.”

“You know what I’m talking about. Are voodoo rites enacted here?”

The innocent cheek of it.  “Not here, exactly.”

“Where, where?”

“Only in Kensington Palace, across the park.”

“Oh. Very amusing.”

“Amusing? It couldn’t just possibly be the best answer to that question?”

A blank.  A curtain had come down. This absolute refusal to study the studying self was very English and, being an almost-Englishman, I’d used it many times to avoid having to face the mess that was myself.

“I mean do the…er…”

I let her off the hook. She was obviously just a little embarrassed by not knowing the proper liberal euphemism of the hour for the coloured population of Great Britain.

“You mean black people?” I could tell she was impressed by my confident pronunciation.

Of course all this kind of thing was exactly what she was plumbing for. She’d already cast me as the nitty-gritty man, the street-wise person who knew secrets about the dark corners of Notting Hill. I could have given her hours of that stuff, but I wasn’t going to. Should the crap ever hit the fan (as it had done several times before) I knew the sociology department of her university would gladly feed it straight to the police computers without giving a thought about any liberal principles inscribed in dog-Latin over its Texaco-funded Entrance Hall.

“Do they have ceremonies?”

The imperial romanticism is back. I reply in kind. “Their voodoo is intensely private.”

Her eyes sparkle. She has her beloved fuzzy-wuzzies cornered at last. For a second, I think she is going to take out a notebook.

“Like the Quipu people?”

“No. Like the Windsor family.”

Looking as if I had put a hand up her skirt, she walked to the counter, paid her bill, and brayed back at me: “You’re being silly. Very silly. You know as well as I do, that’s all about horses and doggies.”

“That’s some power for a farmyard.”

A smile, but no interest in the point. The mundane-game had won. In England, the mysteries were always Out There. They were never close.

At this point a very young, inexperienced police officer (tubby, in need of a hair-cut, and most likely from out of town), decides in his wisdom to arrest a solitary black drunk who is on his knees outside the William Hill betting shop.

Hearing cries for help from a comrade, the figures of paradise and nightmare fly from their thinly welded and precarious perches to smother this officer and his half-dozen hapless colleagues with a theatre-wardrobe made up from a year of hours of begging, borrowing, saving, and not a little liberating. A hail of cardboard spears, Roman shields, puppet-heads, fish-tails, serpent’s eyes, bags of sparkles, yards of net, packets of sequins, tubes of exploding confetti and gobbets of face-paint, and even a discarded mermaid’s brassiere or two (as a gesture of civic defiance) peppers the hapless out-of-town constabulary. Used to British revolutions which start outside Woolworths and finish a minute later outside Tescos, the baffled Falstaffian police line take to their heels covered in motley. Running like drag-queens after a bad night in Portsmouth, they leave the handcuffed lad drunk with one of their helmets on his astonished head and the Anthropologist, cowering in a doorway, screams her handbag’s been snatched.

The Digger roars into life as if in appreciation. Re-mounted and victorious, the whole battle-scarred production lurches forward towards Ladbroke Grove in all its swaying and fragile glory. The revellers pull the drunk and the injured aboard with the dedication of a crew rescuing torpedoed casualties from the sea. The steel drums start again and, whilst the drunk has his handcuffs sawn off, the column is now followed by howling police vans, joined overhead by so many helicopters it looks like old Vietnam footage of First Air Cavalry going into action. For a bit I think I’m going to hear Ride of the Valkyries from speakers aboard the choppers and the flashes of .50 cal. door-gunners thudding into action.

The British sure love a celebration.

Further progress of this now triumphant-column is cursed by batteries of pasty-faced white concierges, two-fingered by a solitary skinhead, sneered at by heretic-burning faces behind twitching curtains and recorded by countless gone-mad surveillance cameras, nodding every which way, now peopled by seagulls more used to heaving decks. Drivers curse, shopkeepers close their doors, and a solitary little Dickensian clerk a table away, pulls out his notebook, and starts totting up the cost of street cleaning in a nasal voice.

“Cost yer round about £1,000 for clearing the rubbish, another possible £500 for the disinfecting and cleansing of any food-stained areas—”

Just as I’m thinking this is the most boring, insignificant little dog that ever was—looking the other way, he most expertly slides a sliver of paper to me with an address on it.

As I said, coast watching has its merits. Things come. You radiate the questions and things come back, just like a radar echo.

I snatch the paper just as expertly and when I look up the clerk has disappeared into the mystery of the day.

Carlson—Carlson. I sat well back from him and was comforted by the lump of my 9mm Browning tucked in my waist band as I told him I didn’t take sugar.  Information was the vital currency of a newly emerging world, gradually replacing those old paper promises of the eighteenth century. People like Carlson commanded its source and direction. This made his life, which was so physically minimal, full of terrifying potential.

He was very northern Irish and had one of the most powerful muscular builds I’ve ever seen. But his nerves were not in nearly as good a state.

His room was full of outback pressure. The effect was like being in a diving bell deep under water. There were countless presences amidst the boxes. These boxes were not the result of failures in life or shards of other lives, so much as there was something theatrical about them. They were tokens. I had the idea that they were never added to, moved, or changed in any way. I got the impression that they were excuses – that is, props chosen and designed to reassure the rare visitor that everything was normal, that here was an ordinary person who had succeeded, then failed, then picked himself up again as an ordinary person who washed his socks and purchased the occasional Lottery ticket.

These were things some alien might put there to cover other more vaporous alien presences, just as someone with occult powers proper might have a girl in tights by his side and produce a few rabbits from hats to assure folk that all was well, that they were really being tricked. They could take comfort in the assurance that there were really no mysteries beyond that circus of tricky arrangements called the mechanical.

In my experience the rooms of men who trade in illicit information always have something of this atmosphere. They survived by impossibilities, did these riverbank creatures; impossible economics, impossible thoughts, impossible lives, missions, loves, and journeys, and yet nothing was visible; no property, no transactions. Yet they were as exhausted by their imaginations as if they’d scaled Everest or bought cities and the wealth of continents. I imagined Carlson waking quite exhausted from half-forgotten dream-labours. This was the work they did, these rare creatures. All and everything was the Imagining; they worked on right up to the limit of their energies and only had half a foot in this life.

He dropped a metal mug but did not curse. Picked it up and washed it with all the care of a bush commando. I noticed he had difficulty with certain objects, as an Irishman might have difficulty with something made in Huddersfield: only a few seconds’ difference in Latitude, perhaps, a few degrees of Longitude, but enough to account for a few minor, almost unnoticed occultisms, a few minute misbehaviours attributed to chance, machine, action, or purpose.

Moving, he talked to everything: the curtains, a pottery bear, a pair of gloves, even some dirt on the unswept floor. Everything had a name, all was personified. He talked to things rather than talk to me. When he spoke to me it was without recognition, just as I myself would curse a lawnmower for a few seconds on summer’s eve. I felt that here was the clue to his information: in his constant chattering to them, things chattered back. I’d the idea that even the inanimate was capable of listening to some primeval clues in the sound of his voice.

His responses were shaped to a hidden language of objects which was denied to me. I supposed that to speak to a cup or a kettle was no madness. It was just that there was a life: not perhaps a biological life as such, but a language of shape and form and function which these objects understood because they consisted of little else. I had a vision of this half-alive matter he spoke to as being unable to help him when, long ago, he was dragged out of a hovel to some god-forsaken European village square and burnt at the stake.

But perhaps they did help him. The fire might have been kind or perhaps the cultural force he represented was now almost exhausted and only heard his screams as if from the other side of its grave. I conceived that only others like him could kill him with a hit-and-run…but even if they did, car engines would fail, the brakes not engage.

Human beings in their folly think they can live without any relationship with these communities of forms and shapes. They have forgotten the tricks in the shapes where the dead have left their spore, and that a lifetime of meals and dreaming afternoons could be unravelled simply from the timeless forms of the character of these shapes.

Like myself, Carlson was very old in time. We recognised one another, we veterans of history. I can’t explain it, perhaps it’s re-incarnation, I just don’t know. There’s certainly a camaraderie amongst the reincarnated ones.

He went through his pockets, deft fingers exploring just as if he was checking the saddlery of ages: strips of dried meat, the salt fish and the dried fruit, all flattened for a long journey in scrubbed hide-packs, cured and bleached under a high sun. From the horse-stealing gypsy depths of his clothing, I would not have been surprised if he produced a brace of poached hares. What’s this he’s offering me? Flat biscuit-things looking like he’d baked them that morning on a hot riverside stone. And to think they make microchips and satellite aerials only a hundred yards away from this broken old mews.

But I love all this. I am a trash-town junky. I fix on low-life like other people fix on film stars.

He opened a tin of condensed milk by a cracked window through which could be seen a decayed garden and derelict shed. Somehow, like him, I had always lived here with the walking wounded, ever since Cortinas replaced chariots and chariots replaced carts with stone wheels. All else to me was costume, posing, a dump of bough-plumage…the trouble was that my over-sized brain liked to suck on it, if nothing else of me did.  I hated my brain. Compared to the age of myself and Carlson, brain was a new thing. I supposed we both used it like a learner-driver. It banged and crashed, lurched and caught fire, did brain; it refused absolutely to be controlled and it appeared to lack all direction.

Now he lopes from his narrow bed to his primus. Primus—that makes it complete. I’d think this whole thing was a complete act, were not for his poacher’s lope. You couldn’t acquire a thing like through night classes. Suppose that’s why he knows so much. He’s still half-in, half-out of plant-life, is Carlson.

“How’s your sex life?”

“Fair to middling.”

“I do my jail-baiting at King’s Cross. You never know what a Saturday night comes up with. Lost PhDs, A-Level hysteria cases, video casualties, and speed-burns, right?”

“Haven’t been there lately.”

“All want to be actresses. A bit battered, some of ‘em, even at fifteen. Scared, you know—away from the curtains, the blasting TV, and the semi. My place is such a shit-heap they don’t stay. Just twenty-four hours, grateful for the last coal-fire in Kilburn, maybe a slice of toast, a few coins for the launderette, and a tea-chest to iron a blouse on. Occasionally a game of chess, some cocoa, then they hop off for the bigger games in town and I never see ‘em again.”

Between two televisions, a stack of videos, comic books, and discarded Midnight Pizza cartons was this Mick Carlson. Confused between the UDA, the UFF, and a lapsed Presbyterianism, Mickey was a live and wriggling mixed bag of junk-systems ready to run riot. Within a span of fifteen years he’d been both a communist and a British National Front contact for various right-wing Loyalist interests. Two divorces and a serious drink problem later, he’d been dishonourably discharged from the British Army.

He’d been run at least twice by British Army Intelligence between several multiple factions of both sides so thus the daily wonder that Carlson was still alive.  The way I looked at it, the trouble was that when anyone thought of killing him their second thought was always how useful he could be whilst alive. This was both his downfall and his saving grace. Everyone used him, from attempted deep penetration to unloading stolen hi-fi equipment, to running a down-at-heel Prod drinking club, to arranging week-long illegal card games, to being a go-between for RUC and even the IRA.

After an earlier disastrous attempt at pimping he’d turned to being a runner for the carrion liberal and democratic interests which used the seething miasma of the general conflict to earn a far better living than he ever did.  Runners were used to force-feed manufactured tit-bits for television news services and documentary makers, as a local tourist industry. Of late he had developed sidelines in pornography and drugs and failed at both. At thirty Carlson was the kind of fascinating and dangerous mess perhaps unique to twenty-first century cities. More highly geared characters turned to serial killing or cannibalism, but Carlson was too lazy for such things and in case, he just wasn’t angry enough. Some turned to spectacular rape, serial-killing or sadomasochistic sex.  But Carlson never had the deeply perverse nerve to hate women on that level. Not mentally complex enough to be a psychopath, he was a squatting hyena-bird of the rubbish megalopolis, somehow as essential to its twisted subterranean life as buried cables, tunnels, and conspiracies.

Well, well, here was someone I might well have been.

Piles of brand-new sheets and blankets in their original wrapping. Unopened boxes of shirts and the stench of beer amidst second-hand, cheap furniture. On a circular table covered with ancient red velvet tasselled cloth were piled high further boxes of old-fashioned kitchen goods, some of them generations out of date, as if they were the telescoping dimensions of Carlson’s family strivings, those legions of various box-shifters, forever opening hatch-backs, all the way back to carts, caravans, leather packs, and skin bags, shaped bones, sandals, and combs fit for a mammoth.  

It looked as if nothing had changed for Carlson perhaps for thousands of years, making a nonsense of conventional ideas of life and death. Even in his ill-fitting suit and tie, polished black boots, and long history of being one of the most unsuccessful UVF gun-runners ever, Carlson might for all the world have just walked off the nailed and roped eucalyptus planks of any quay of the old Ottoman Empire, or hopped off a great Dark Age horse-caravan to sell skins to tribes moving down to a warmer Europe, waking after a limitless glacial time in a petrified forest. Not that the nervous bulky man before me would have noticed much about times or details. Life was just as hard for proto-Carlsons either in the Athens of Pericles, the Alexandria of Ptolemy, or the Vegas of Sinatra.

This was the lair of an animal whose deals were always near collapse, or hurried or suspicious, or even honest. Carlson was a permanently breathless hulk, his single primus flanked by stacks of “factory-fresh” deck-chairs in clear plastic bags that reflected his own sweating, fearful face—for most of these goods were not paid for, were stolen, or being “held”  against personal debts chalked up in back-store card games.

The chain-smoker in his ill-fitting suit, with tight wide tie pushing out his red neck and pop-eyes, forever cracking a beer, forever glancing out a small, curtained dusty window. Many people and equally suspicious organisations fed him a little, helped keep him on the verge of bankruptcy. One day Carlson would fall into nasty waters with a beer in his hand, throw up some mildly interesting waves and be gone forever. And apart from some who would sigh with relief, very few would know or care.

Now times were even harder. Now the skills that had kept Carlson just alive for a thousand years were hard pressed. These days the deals, it seemed, were always near partially formed, or let down in the rain by someone bringing three boxes of stolen dancing camels in plaster. With a sigh, Carlson would light up a full-strength fag, wind down his stolen Fiesta window, and try to make it before the day ended to the villages beyond the mountains to unload some clothes lines, butter dishes, and a cheap boxed radio. Then he had to beat the bank. And the Cash’N’Carry bill.  Also a thousand and one other “ands” which were the ten thousand plagues of forever-cursed mankind in its never-ending thirst for rent, electricity, gas, water, petrol, and various compulsory daily oral injections of increasingly expensive multi-coloured pastes and poisons.

“D’ju see the fight?”

Carlson looked at the worn cracked silver cardboard of a box.  Sharp-eyed young housewives no longer bought his faulty cut-price oven gloves, or reject paper towels which didn’t tear off properly. Drivers of Ford Escorts no longer lusted for his nodding-dogs, nor desired his rear-window stickers requesting Don’t Watch Her Rear Watch Mine.  

He was now in a business equally as perilous. For Carlson now sold covert information. He had gone in one bound from pinafores to plots, from insoles to intrigues. And he’d found not one jot or tittle of difference between the two commercial worlds, either in value or practicality of goods. The  shoddiness was of course identical and—as for the moral nature of it all— he cared not if someone was killed as a result of his activities or risked their lips on one of his “very slightly chipped Antique Waterford” El Delmonto glasses from Taiwan.

Here was a prime betrayer. Carlson had been sold a cracked cup of a life when he was born and he was not complex enough for vengeance or even resentment. He lived from day to day and the big systems, both of knowledge and then of divine destiny and revelation, raced by like the commercial breaks they undoubtedly were.

At some point in the history of all these boxes and packages they had become pure camouflage. In his new-found occupation they’d given Mick Carlson the very best of excuses to travel to any airport, hotel, warehouse, shop, or city in Europe arranging for the multifarious shapes of cartons and containers to move all ways with forms as complicated and obscure as only EuroRules could make them. The ideal cover for a man whose real money was made by selling whole pieces of nefarious underside schemes to the highest bidder. And often the highest bidder was the very nation from whom this particular bit of underside had been stolen in the first place. Trouble was, Carlson paid out so much for his information (and every kind of protection) that, as always, he was still breathlessly on the verge of spectacular debt. Even along the sulphurous fault-lines of the night-side European Community, all was therefore just as it had been in his days of sets of three faulty aluminium saucepans. Carlson simply could not beat the bank before his cheques bounced.

The inside of his head was also an Aladdin’s cave. I supposed that if he were ever interrogated no one would know which con trick to pick at first. His very failure was a survival-skill in itself: look at him, talk to him and you wanted to get away, to be rid of him.

Carlson looked and sounded as if he’d be quite incapable of maintaining conventional standards of professional criminal deception, never mind organising complex schemes demanding lots of thought and organisation. Or was he far more clever than he looked? His worn sad boxes in this tomb-like place sweated the very same air of personal strife and desperation. Yet the man himself was still up and moving, maintaining himself and his weapons in one of the most dangerous places on Earth for a professional criminal. As a fragment of disguise in a disguised city  Carlson had to be up to all sorts of tricks that were quite beyond the conception or capacity of South London or the East End. Many a criminal (and many a policeman) had broken his teeth in Carlson country and gone back howling to places where human responses were much more conventional, predictable.

There were no real escapes in Carlson’s universe, there were no real possibilities. Nothing could ever happen here, for time and events in the proper sense meant fruition and there was no growth here. Nothing of triumph, love, or even a good sale or the pride of structured rip-off. The countless boxes lining this place of burial were countless days of banging against a cliff-face, ripping flesh off of an experience of life which was a denial of everything but pain.  All Carlson ever really wanted to do was just, get through all the days. Just get through. Don’t bother about anything else. Especially success. What a hurt it was that even any small success, any tiny particle of victory of any kind, couldn’t wriggle through the cracks like a naughty child to tip the universe over.

But Carlson would somehow survive even death. We are reconstituted like soups. He would be the same in a thousand years, sweating by some cave-mouth as this, endless bills and the noise of several hunts coming ever nearer. And he would ever blend with rock and tree in the same way, perhaps not knowing quite how or why. He would not know, between the new buying and new selling, that he was superbly bred for survival, for eternal running and hiding. Carlson the robot designed his paranoid-shadow, skipping, flitting, cowering, and dealing between endless boxes in the alleys of great world cities whose basements and warehouses reared up at him like a never-ending spate of life and death.

Perhaps Carlson would never ever win a round but, like an Apache, if he was caught up with on the trail there’d be a knife left between mere picked, bleached bones while his ghost would be long gone, getting ready for another thousand years.

“She plays cards.”

This was the games equivalent to “she drinks”. It meant a serious obsession. Carlson leaned against a pile of polythene-wrapped electric blankets. He was about to enjoy himself.  For the first time, something of a human shape was slowly beginning emerge from the great dark. An obsession—now that was interesting. Obsessions meant weakness. And so far they hadn’t known she had one.

“Poker.  Sometimes Bridge.”

“I bet she wins.”

“Mostly.”

“Who is she?”

“Does it matter?”

“Don’t suppose so.”

“I don’t know who she is, but I can tell you where she’s sleeping this minute.”

“That’ll do.”

“I haven’t got a name. I don’t think she has. I think the name got lost somewhere a long time ago.”

He checked his watch like a parachute officer about to jump out over Arnhem and I knew that when Carlson became acutely conscious of time it usually meant death.

“You’ll have to run.”

“Run where?”

“Room Twenty-three, Conway Hotel, Spring Street.”

The line of police cars jamming Praed Street told its obvious story. I was far too late, of course. Too much thinking in the Safari Tent, I suppose. But I consoled myself by thinking that whilst one of my trainees might have got here sooner, he or she would now be emerging feet-first with Miss X from the Conway Hotel.

Carlson died in a bomb of gunfire two days later.

Yes, and so—I spend most of my late autumn afternoons in the Safari Tent where I can examine its “anthropology” at a remove, without its shadow ever falling across the closed curtains of my mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *