headlong | ch.1
Monday June 14th 1999
Red and hovering, like a brilliant dragonfly, the helicopter whirred briefly over the Westway before heading East with the corpse. All was still on the elevated motorway curving over Portobello Road as the dotted white clouds paused in honour of the newly dead man. A pair of magpies perched on the central reservation, still now after the thunderclap of impact. Three lanes of traffic had been halted by the luminous arms of a lone policeman waving. The air ambulance had landed, paramedics cleared a space and the police cordoned off the road around a cockeyed London bus. They measured and marked, and then they swept, radios crackling. Amongst the debris, the blood and the shattered glass, the man’s face was covered with a red blanket. His crushed helmet placed on his lap like a wreath. They strapped him on and sent him up while London’s western artery hung suspended in time, engines all quieted in an impromptu funeral. Blue lights flashed and red fragments of motorcycle littered the carriageway. Dust to dust for the unknown stretchered man rising; his broken body laid temporarily to rest in the belly of the helicopter as its blades became invisible in the bright light of the June sun.
Everyone below sat or stood transfixed. Each of them tasted the proximity of death as they found themselves spontaneously gathered together to mark the passing of a part-time despatch rider; somebody’s beloved, a mother’s son who never saw forty and should have stayed in bed that day.
Joe sat astride his silenced motorcycle with his arms dangling at his sides, inhaling his own mortality, his inevitable heartbeat. A few minutes earlier he had been spearheading the charge west, always ahead of the traffic. When this sudden stop was ordered, Joe came eye to eye with the policeman in his fluorescent jacket and motorcycle boots, an unsaid greeting passed between them: There but for the grace of God go I. It left Joe breathing deep and slow in the stationary morning rush. He watched soberly from the ringside as the drama closed. His feet planted soundly on the ground, visor up, eyes skyward, pondering the twists of life, marvelling at the swift hand of the Reaper. So still now, the blue day splashed with red.
He is no longer thinking of this morning’s accident. Joe is in the coffee shop down by the river at London Bridge, surrounded by tinted glass and stainless steel, a place to be cosmopolitan, or continental as his Dad would have said. Froth and espressos colonise the tables circled with city boys and wealthy young mums, sipping and talking, the mingled voices rising and falling in a sporadic hum. He stands at the counter in his boots and his old leather jacket, a spent roll up gripped tight between his fingers, tall and agitated, taking up space as he gesticulates.
‘Double espresso with half an inch of hot milk,’ he repeats, as if he is training a particularly slow Labrador. He is demonstrating half an inch with his thumb and forefinger.
‘I don’t fucking care what it’s called. Just make it. It’s not that hard!’ He does not look well carrying the sleeved paper cup as he returns to the table in the corner; the one with the crash helmet and gloves, the full ashtray and the disarrayed newspapers. Joe has made himself slightly too at home. He sits and slumps.
Moments before, he was absently nursing a lukewarm espresso, passing the time not eating a tissue-clad almond croissant, still oozing and sad on the plate. He was busy ignoring the package collected that morning from Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport. He had been there for over an hour, read the papers twice and absorbed nothing of the celebrity capers, unmoved even by the agony aunts’ saucy tips. That is why he went back to the counter for a flimsy plastic knife and sawed through the brown tape. That is why he had not just left the thing alone. There it is. He opened it. It sits there now, amongst the breakfast debris, its entrails spread across the silver tabletop.
Joe had specifically brought the innocuous parcel to this familiar spot by the river, just to ignore it in peace with his coffee and a smoke. He had hoped to enjoy not dealing with it, beholding the brown paper sealed tight, smug while the world suffered another tedious Monday. He knew it was only work unlikely to reveal surprises. It smelt, felt and weighed in his hand like work. He could not bring himself to be interested. Later, in the dark of his Camden home with the phone at rest, he might sit entirely naked on a Summer evening with the French windows open. Then, if he is not too distracted squeezing out the vinegar words for his scathing column, he might engage his famous mind. Open it, scan it and place it on the pile with all the other unsolicited burdens. But No. That is not how it plays out today. Right there, in the café, he has opened the fucking thing.
‘Mad! That’s just fucking mad!’ he says in a strangled whisper,’ you couldn’t make it up!’ He is sitting alone, crouching forward over the table, his elbows taking the weight of his head. His face is ashen, his body is braced. His eyes sting, red and dry. He is waiting for his pulsing temples to quieten and still. Waves of pain cross his forehead, visible in his frightened eyes. He wills the headache to subside. He lifts his head, looks around, scans across the faces for some extra clue, some information. Nothing. Hands shaking, he rolls a cigarette, his chest is tight, the breath will not come. It is not easy. Eventually he is done rolling and he neatly puts the pocket-weary Rizla pack on top of the tobacco, reaches for his lighter, takes a drag and winces as the nicotine hits his brain.
‘Mad! That’s just fucking mad!’
Joe looks again at his watch. The hands are not moving, just the second hand quivers like an arrow strung taut in the bow. Pounding marches through his head. His body feels twice its age. The lurch of waking from a nightmare, only to find the real nightmare in waking. The blood has not yet returned to his face, his sphincter remains contracted. He struggles to comprehend the spilt contents of the package, spread like tarot cards on the table. Almost rocking with distraction, his thoughts are spinning, his memory scrambling. No answers and no sense. He wants to screw his eyes tightly shut so that soon it will all be all right. But it is still there, he cannot ignore it, he cannot unopen it. How his legs are shaking, concealed they tremble, rattling the spoon and saucer on the metal table. He wants it to be a joke, a clumsy prank. But he can see that it is not. Fear and disbelief have taken him hostage, he cannot think.
Joe needs to get himself home and find his breath. He simply cannot grasp it. There is the picture. There are the index cards. A list: his name, his address, his phone number. The letters dancing, barely recognisable on the page. Another card, his inventory: Hair: dark, Eyes; green and so on. And here is the main feature, the sentence to remember. Require little finger of left hand as proof of completion. Capital letters and underlined. Even the padded envelope makes him silently retch.
There is a packet within the packet. A flat tight rectangle like a bar of chocolate. Joe has not discovered it yet but it will wait for him.
He glances out the window, startled by a sudden violent downpour. He steadies his breath. The lightning cracks with barely a pause before the thunder shakes the empty chairs outside. People running for cover like cockroaches when the light comes on. Across the road a train slithers, in slow motion, high up on the old viaduct, black against the sky. He watches its windows, lurid and yellow through the sheets of wet. The endless transient blur of passing through. Everything slows. The sounds of conversation and stirring spoons, the humid rumble of taxis and buses, all of it slows. Everything but his pulse. He looks around, checking if anyone can see inside his head, if they can hear the crashing waves. He feels his lips go numb.
‘Are you finished with that?’ A young woman, her dark hair tied back, is pointing at the dead croissant, all arms and enthusiasm. ‘Only I need to clear the table.’ Joe is oblivious.
‘This isn’t fucking funny,’ he is saying to the table. His teeth are clenched.
‘I’m not laughing,’ says the girl.
‘Not you,’ says Joe, ‘This, this isn’t fucking funny!’ An old photograph of himself stares up at him from next to the dirty ashtray. He eyes, the features, the lack of wrinkles round the eyes, the swagger in his face. This two dimensional younger Joe gives him a wink. The girl empties the ashtray, folds the newspapers, pauses, looks from Joe to the picture and back again.
‘Not bad looking though,’ she smiles cheerily. ‘What happened?’ She turns and walks away, a tray of cups and refuse.
‘Which bit of ‘it isn’t fucking funny’ did you fail to understand?’ he spits at the picture.
‘Well Stupid,’ smirked the photograph, ‘I’d say all of it, what do you think?’ Joe sits there, engrossed and paralysed. Seeing things that are not there.
‘That’s all I need, a talking fucking Polaroid and a comedy waitress,’ he mutters to the diminishing back of the whistling girl.
He reaches for the tobacco; his hands are clammy though the trembling is less. The thin white Rizla paper sticks to itself with the moisture and fumbling. SMOKERS DIE YOUNGER declares the green packet; he imagines it as the title of a new Bond film. ‘This really isn’t fucking funny,’ he says, one last time, biting his lip while he picks tiny shreds of tobacco from his fingernails.
Enough. He leaps up, spilling the last of his coffee, the package tight under one arm. He hooks the crash helmet on the other and strides out into the rain of Tooley Street. He stops abruptly. Stands, letting the water drip from the canopy to his eyebrows and down his cheeks. His feet hover, as if he is not really standing on the black wet pavement. Where the fuck is the bike? A man passing, reaches for his inside pocket. Joe ducks and loses his balance. The man answers his phone as Joe is falling. His helmet clips the metal café table, which topples loudly to join him as he lies prone. Huge raindrops hit the ground and bounce back up, inches from his face. He is looking at the blurred feet of passing tourists, and little white shapes of china that were once a cup.
‘Are you all right?’ asks a Japanese voice, a woman, concerned. Joe sees her long black hair and her denim knees. He flinches at her red umbrella, his eyes have always been afraid of the points. He can see her mouth is moving. She is crouching to talk to him. ‘You okay?’ she is saying, the rhythm foreign but no trace of an accent. He looks up at her, realising now where he is.
‘Fuck off! will you,’ he gets to his feet. She is walking away as he calls to her, ‘Listen, I’m sorry …’ his voice trails off as she turns to him. He sees the wetness in her eyes and it is not the windblown rain. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says again. She says nothing as she turns away, Joe feels ashamed.
He is wet now. His hair, his legs, his arse, like he is just out of a fully-clothed bath. He looks around for his helmet and spots the leathery black fish of his glove, gasping in a puddle. Smile, it could be worse. So he does and it is.
Soon he finds himself underneath the arches. The bricks are ancient and eaten by fumes, blackened, soft and solid. Traffic passes slowly, tyres drying on the underground road. Joe finds shelter from the rain and the sights of predators. He is safe by the side of the bike with the large envelope glowing like a radioactive hot water bottle inside his jacket, determinedly seeping into his chest. He clocks the yellow square of a parking ticket, slapped onto the high black tank of the old Suzuki. He laughs, really laughs until there are tears. I don’t give a fuck.
The bike starts with a roar and he lurches off the pavement and out into the daylight, accelerating through the slippery streets. Russian roulette as he slips between the banks of lumbering trucks, mirrors kissing, gaps closing, every decision life and death. Twisting the throttle hard to London Bridge, past the bloodied vampires touting for business by the London Dungeon, past the arched station exit that vomits tourists onto the street. Right at the lights to speed across the swelling Thames into the City proper, through the leaning office stacks that keep the narrow streets in shadow and on past Finsbury Pavement, filled with pigeons and rolled up shirtsleeves as he hurtles straight to Old Street, like a pinball, sprung to the roundabout. Second exit and along past the Drive-By McDonalds to the epic tunnelled wastelands of King’s Cross, sharp right and up to Camden Town.
His face is stained with tears, speckled with London grime. His mouth gapes in the wind like an old carrier bag. He is alive, his one glove dripping, the other hand safe and dry inside its mate. Waterproof is not bulletproof, thinks Joe, slowing to weave through the line of taxis, becoming thwarted in the maze. The filthy buses creep, incessant bass lines pump through open windows, brakes sneeze and wail by the sweaty burger stalls, frying onions in a pounding mass of babble. Another Summer on Camden High Street. His head is full. There is no space left inside. He is holding his breath amongst the chaotic dance of traffic and swarming people. A man crosses the road in a donkey jacket, with INSECURITY emblazoned across the back. Red, red amber, green. The blast of a van’s horn behind him makes his heart leap and. The bike lurches. He stalls.
‘Jesus Christ!’ he roars, flushing hot as cold sweat prickles his back. People turn, eyes are upon him. Naked.
The rain stops and the sun outlines the purple grey clouds with a lip of startling white. Everything glows with a neon edge; each silver lining has a cloud. Edging forward, nearly home. Even the road is shining.