To Jake


I don’t know how I lost you. I remember there was that long time of searching for you, frantic and sick- making . . . I was almost ecstatic with anxiety. And then I found you, so that was alright. Only I lost you again. And I can’t make out how it happened.

I’m sitting out here on the flat roof you must remember, looking out over this dangerous city. There is, you remember, a dull view from my roof. There are no parks to break up the urban monotony, no towers worth a damn. Just an endless, featureless crosshatching of brick and concrete, a drab chaos of interlacing backstreets stretching out interminably behind my house. I was disappointed when I first moved here; I didn’t see what I had in that view. Not until Bonfire Night.

I just caught a buffet of cold air and the sound of wet cloth in the wind. I saw nothing, of course, but I know that an early riser flew right past me. I can see dusk welling up behind the gas towers.

That night, November the fifth, I climbed up and watched the cheap fireworks roar up all around me.

They burst at the level of my eyes, and I traced their routes in reverse to mark all the tiny gardens and balconies from which they flew. There was no way I could keep track; there were just too many. So I sat up there in the midst of all that red and gold and gawped in awe. That washed-out grey city I had ignored for days spewed out all that power, that sheer beautiful energy.

I was seduced then. I never forgot that display, I was never again fooled by the quiescence of the backstreets I saw from my bedroom window. They were dangerous. They remain dangerous.

But of course it’s a different kind of dangerous now. Everything’s changed. I floundered, I found you, I lost you again, and I’m stuck above these pavements with no one to help me.

I can hear hissing and gentle gibbering on the wind. They’re roosting close by, and with the creeping dark they’re stirring, and waking.

You never came round enough. There was I with my new flat above the betting shops and cheap hardware stores and grocers of Kilburn High Road. It was cheap and lively. I was a pig in shit. I was happy as Larry. I ate at the local Indian and went to work and self-consciously patronised the poky little independent bookshop, despite its pathetic stock. And we spoke on the phone and you even came by, a few times. Which was always excellent.

I know I never came to you. You lived in fucking Barnet. I’m only human.

What were you up to, anyway? How could I be so close to someone, love someone so much, and know so little about their life? You wafted into northwest London with your plastic bags, vague about where you’d been, vague about where you were going, who you were seeing, what you were up to. I still don’t know how you had the money to indulge your tastes for books and music. I still don’t understand what happened with you and that woman you had that fucked-up affair with.

I always liked how little our love-lives impacted on our relationship. We would spend the day playing arcade games and shooting the shit about x or y film, or comic, or album, or book, and only as an afterthought as you gathered yourself to go, we’d mention the heartache we were suffering, or the blissed-out perfection of our new lovers.

But I had you on tap. We might not speak for weeks, but one phone call was all it would ever need.

That won’t work now. I don’t dare touch my phone anymore. For a long time there was no dialling tone, only irregular bursts of static, as if my phone were scanning for signals. Or as if it were jamming them.

The last time I picked up the receiver something whispered to me down the wires, asked me a question in a reverential tone, in a language I did not understand, all sibilants and dentals. I put the phone down carefully and have not lifted it since.

So I learnt to see the view from my roof in the garish glow of fireworks, to hold it in the awe it deserved.

That view is gone now. It’s changed. It has the same topography, it’s point for point the same as it ever was, but it’s been hollowed out and filled with something new. Those dark thoroughfares are no less beautiful, but everything has changed.

The angle of my window, the height of my roof, hid the tarmac and paving stones from me: I saw the tops of houses and walls and rubble and skips, but I couldn’t see ground level, I never saw a single human being walk those streets. And that lifeless panorama I saw brimmed with potential energy. The roads might be thronging, there might be a street party or a traffic accident or a riot just out of my sight. It was a very full emptiness I learnt to see, on Bonfire Night, a very charged desolation.

That charge has changed polarity. The desolation remains. Now I can see no one because no one is there. The roads are not thronging, and there are no street parties out there at all, nor could there ever be again.

Sometimes, of course, those streets must snap into sharp focus as a figure strides down them, determined and nervous, as I myself stride down Kilburn High Road when I leave the house. And usually the figure will be lucky, and reach the deserted supermarket without incident, and find food and leave and get home again, as I have been lucky.

Sometimes, though, they will fall through a faultline in the pavement and disappear with a despairing wail, and the street will be empty. Sometimes they will smell something enticing from a cosy-looking house, trip eager into the open front door, and be gone. Sometimes they will pass through glimmering filaments that dangle from the dirty trees, and they will be reeled in.

I imagine some of these things. I don’t know how people are disappeared, in these strange days, but hundreds of thousands, millions of souls have gone. London’s main streets, like the high road I can see from the front of my house, contain only a few anxious figures—a drunk, maybe, a lost-looking policeman listening to the gibberish from his radio, someone sitting nude in a doorway—everyone avoiding everyone else’s eyes.

The backstreets are almost deserted.

What’s it like where you are, Jake? Are you still out there in Barnet? Is it full? Has there been a rush to the suburbs?

I doubt it’s as dangerous as Kilburn.

Nowhere’s as dangerous as Kilburn.

I’ve found myself living in the Badlands.

This is where it’s all at, this is the centre. Only a few stupid shits like me live here now, and we are disappearing one by one. I have not seen the corduroy man for days, and the glowering youth who camped down in the bakery is no longer there.

We shouldn’t stay here. We have, after all, been warned.

Kill. Burn.

Why do I stay? I could make my way in reasonable safety southwards, towards the centre. I’ve done it before; I know what to do. Travel at midday, clutch my A–Z like a talisman. I swear it protects me. It’s become my grimoire. It would take an hour or so to walk to Marble Arch, and it’s a main road all the way. Those are reasonable odds.

I’ve done it before, walked down Maida Vale, over the canal, full these days of obscure detritus. Past the tower on the Edgware Road with the exoskeleton of red girders that jut into the sky twenty feet above the flat roof. I have heard something padding and snorting in the confines of that high prison, caught a glimpse of glistening muscle and slick fur shaking the metal in agitation.

I think the things that flap drop food into the cage from above.

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