I love everything about Will Gallia’s animation A day on the London Underground on Vimeo – but the thing I love the most is when the day ends and London goes to sleep from the middle out to the edges.
Hello! It’s been a while since I posted on here, for which apologies. But look! A gorgeous new cover for the Savage Magic paperback, out in June!
For all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into here, I wanted to record this beautiful piece by Oliver Sacks, who has been diagnosed with secondary liver cancer:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I resisted reading this for a good long while, I’m not quite sure why. It was so enormously praised when it came out, I suppose I must have decided, in my miserly way, that it was over-hyped. Well, it wasn’t. It’s an elegantly-done thing, full of threat and beauty, but for me the best and most interesting thing about it was the structure, which flips between the now and the past, with the now stepping forward but the past receding, with each chapter moving further away until the last chapter reveals the past of the main character, Jake, with the strange scars on her back and her apparent flight from her family in Australia to a sheep farm on an unnamed British island.
It’s not a long book – barely more than 200 pages – and the story it tells is a simple one, but that just gives the story room to breathe and the words room to grow in your head after you’ve put it down, until you can almost hear those birds singing yourself. A lovely thing, and very recommended.
I got lost on the way to the Lost Skills support group, but I had become very used to getting lost in recent weeks. My sense of direction had once been my key skill. I’d spent four years studying the Knowledge, pouring my living savings into it, and had got my req without ever getting a grade lower than a B. I’d spent three years working my living in a TX4 Elegance, the one with the classic look, until one day a Chinese guy stepped into the taxi at Canary Wharf and asked to be taken to the Angel, and off I went, but when I popped out of the end of the Limehouse Link tunnel I realised I didn’t have a clue where to go. Not the slightest idea. The map of London I carried in my head had slid right out of it. I dropped the poor guy in Wapping, and went to drink myself stupid in the Prospect of Whitby. I sold the TX4 a fortnight later, and went to work for Uber a week after that. I was miserable. I was, in all senses of the word, Lost.
I’d stumbled upon this support group (I only ever stumbled upon things these days) in a Facebook group someone had set up for London cabbies who’d fallen out of work for one reason or another. It was in the Richmond adult education centre, the one in Twickenham, but I went to the one in Richmond first. Because, as I said, I got lost.
But I found it eventually. A peeling print-out blu-tacked to the glass said Lost Skills, and in I went. A dozen or so faced turned to me.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I got lost.’
‘How appropriate,’ said one vinegar-faced woman. I sat down, as a man who had been speaking (I supposed) carried on.
‘I used to sell things,’ he said, and looking down he flicked some crumb of something off the lapel of a suit that must once have been smart. ‘Now, I can’t persuade someone to give me directions.’
‘I used to run,’ said a small, thin woman. ‘Miles and miles and miles. Then one day I fell over, and I couldn’t run anymore.’
‘I used to write stories,’ said a nondescript man with a large head. ‘Little stories, and longer ones. But one day I found I couldn’t write endings anymore.’
Then they turned to me.
‘I used to be a black cab driver,’ I said. ‘A good one, too. I made a fine living for three years. Then one day I lost my sense of direction. I couldn’t do it anymore.’
‘Well,’ said the vinegar-faced woman. ‘You’ve come to the right place this time.’
The nondescript man with the large head wrote himself a note.
Frank parked the van at the end of the drive, just inside the wrought iron gates, noting the gigantic snakes that curled up the gigantic gateposts. He thought Devoured by Serpents, Anthony Robinson’s debut novel.
He walked up the curved drive, lined by thick trees, and thought It’s in the Trees, Robinson’s collaboration with Kate Bush, which had been a commercial failure but a critical success.
The house appeared – a Gothic brick affair, all chimneys and windows and astonishing angles, and Frank thought The House That Went Mad, which had been turned into a film with Colin Firth.
He was here to read the meter.
‘There’s a problem,’ Dave had said at the office. ‘It stopped sending signals, two nights ago. Go and check it out.’
He’d protested (Frank often protested) that it didn’t matter if Robinson’s new-fangled networked power meter had gone on the blink. After all, it had been Mrs Robinson who’d wanted it installed, not her famous husband, and she’d been dead a week. He remembered putting the bloody thing in, remembered hearing them argue about it, in that way that couples who argue a lot argue – low voices, bitter tones, unresolved.
He came to the front door. It was open. He rang the bell (an oddly cheerful noise), but no-one came. He poked his head around the door.
‘Hello!’ he called. No-one answered, so he went inside. ‘I’m here to check the meter!’
He went to the door under the stairs that led to the cellar (thinking, as he went, of Robinson’s television series, Nightmares Below the Stairs), and went down the stairs. Mrs Robinson had said she wanted a networked power meter with real-time readings, hardcore industrial stuff, and when he’d asked her why (pretty thing, she was, tall with blonde hair) all she’d said was ‘They can always come back,’ which had confused him at the time, but then he’d gone home and searched for it on Google and found it was an Anthony Robinson short story about reanimation.
The meter was on the wall at the far end of the cellar. He flicked on the light, and walked over to it. It was blackened and scorched, completely ruined, and he frowned at it, as if it was responsible for all the ills in his world. How in hell could that have happened? Only a massive surge of power could have done something like that.
She’d died a week ago, Mrs Robinson. Car crash. Terrible scene, the local paper said, implying salaciously that there had been massive injuries. No-one had seen Robinson since. He’d built an enormous mausoleum for her in the local cemetery. No-one was buried in the cemetery anymore. There wasn’t room. But for a man as rich as Robinson, that hadn’t been a problem. He’d been to visit it, a few days ago. An impressively sepulchral affair, with a massive iron door and a new padlock, and he’d wondered about breaking open the padlock, opening the door and stepping inside, checking just how terrible Mrs Robinson’s injuries had really been. A scoop for the paper. A bit of cash.
He heard a step on the stair, heavy and uncontrolled. Then another. Then another. He was overcome by a reluctance to turn around. He stared at Mrs Robinson’s wrecked electricity meter, and he thought about that Robinson short story she’d mentioned so bitterly on his last visit, the one he’d read the day before. About a man who could reanimate life. All he needed was a lot of power.
‘Frank,’ a voice said, a voice which had been female once but now sounded like sandpaper on old stone. ‘Have you come to fix my meter?’
When the funeral was over (he refused a wake), he hopped into the Renault and drove down to Sussex, a jerrycan on the passenger seat. The car still smelled plastic to him and was full of disturbing buttons and lights which left him feeling he didn’t know how it was being driven, or if it was being driven by him at all. It began to smell of petrol, too.
He parked the Renault alongside the row of old garages at the edge of the field, just outside Bury at the foot of the South Downs, and walked to his own unit. The ground was muddy but drying in the sun. He unlocked the old-fashioned wooden garage door, switched on the light on the inside, and there she was. The old Jag.
An XJ40, she was, built at the end of the eighties but looking like something out of the seventies, which was when they’d started developing her. Those were the days of British Leyland, when it took more than a decade to get a new car into production. She was the last Jaguar worked on by the company’s founder William Lyons.
A Jaguar 3.6 litre engine (a version of the AJ6 inline six). It was said the engineers deliberately designed the car to prevent British Leyland sticking a Rover engine inside her, as they had planned to do, since that would have meant the end of Jaguar engine production. A car from the bad, mad old days. From his own bad, mad old days.
‘You’ll need a hobby,’ his friends had told him when he’d retired. ‘She’ll drive you mad, if you stay at home. There’ll be jobs to do, errands to run, weeds to be dug. You won’t know whether you’re coming or going before long. Get out of the house. Get a hobby.’
So he’d bought the car, for next to nothing. And had then spent thousands of pounds and thousands of hours nursing her back to health, avoiding his wife’s domain, returning at the end of the day for meals and socialising, for television and board games, for holiday organisation and worries about the children. It had been like working, really. A new 9-to-5 to replace the old one.
He got out from under her feet, and avoided getting trampled. And now those feet were still.
He started the car up, and drove her out of the garage, down into Bury, and then up Bury Hill, through Coombe Wood, on to the old London Road and then up on the Downs. He took the old Jag off the road and into an empty car park, along a track. Mud spat onto her sides and slowed her down. He stopped, and stepped out.
So many hours spent with her, while his wife lived the life she lived while he had worked. His refuge from his wife’s world. No longer required.
He was holding the jerrycan, transferred from Renault to Jag to hand without noticing. He splashed petrol on the luxury leather seats, front and back. Then he flipped open his old lighter, unused for more than a decade. It fired up first time (British-made, 1970s, naturally). He threw it into the interior, and stepped away.
The old Jag lit up like a barge on the Ganges, and burned itself away. He thought of his wife’s little Renault, waiting patiently down by the garage. He thought of the walk down the hill. He thought of driving back home. And then he walked back to the Jag, like an old banker heading to work in 1973.