David and Andrew
David and Andrew stride across London Bridge, dark rapidly engulfing the city. They zip their jackets high, buffeted by squalls off the river. An ugly monument to excess dominates the skyline, a dagger in London’s ageing heart. The Spike is near-complete, a cyberpunk’s nightmare punching its aggressive erection into the sky. Unsubstantiated reports suggest many of the palatial flats in the upper reaches have been snapped up by Qatari royals. Masonic forces use the temple for demonic blood rites, an attempt to revive the Witch. The tower will eventually launch into space in its attempt to reach Heaven, or so claim the street-drinkers. To earn the privilege of viewing the sprawl of the city from its upper reaches, a fee of twenty pounds. Count yourself lucky. Strange beings with lifeless eyes are seen reflected in the obsidian windows. Rumour and hearsay hang like smog round The Spike’s upper reaches. It is November and the rain is cold and pervasive.
Japanese tourists, two parents with a pair of small children in tow, cowled in plastic fluorescent waterproofs, run past the pair, heading toward London Bridge station for shelter. David vainly and obsessively attempts to light a cigarette; a point of principle. Andrew buries his hands further into his pockets. Back in The Blind Beggar, they fortified themselves with ale, sturdied themselves for the journey across the water to The Balustrade. The building – what was it? An old factory, a warehouse? -
lurks in a recess in Peckham, with vague directions that it’s ‘next to a petrol station’; luckily Andrew knows the way, just about, he remembers despite the time that’s slipped by and he’s happy to be back in his rhythm of revelries that can last days on end.
South of the river is not their natural territory though, and they feel rudderless. Andrew and David are like beached whales, grounded swallows, when removed from their stomping grounds of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Waltham Forest. The bands playing are enough to lure them down.
It just better be fucking worth it
, says Andrew. David nods sagely in assent. This cold, wet, pain-in-the-arse of a trip allows David to imagine himself carrying an elderly
relative high into indifferent mountains, allowing them to die a dignified death. It’s a scene from a favourite film of his. He smokes his damp cigarette. He hates South London.
Nearing the station, David lost in a cinematic daydream, Andrew sees crudely daubed graffiti masking a Clear Channel billboard. The defaced advert, an airbrushed-beautiful woman, teeth too white, promoting an indefinable and amorphous product. Thick burgundy paint spells out the missive:
THE PIGMAN’S COMING
Andrew frowns. Integrity agitation? They’re appropriating the line from an old anarcho-punk song, he’s sure. He bursts out laughing. The absurdity of it all. Life is ridiculous, a bad joke. His unmoored laughter brings David back to earth.
‘What the hell are you laughing at?’ Finally capitulating, David throws his sodden cigarette to the pavement. Beaded drops of water fall from his hair.
‘That graffiti, up there.’
He looks up, reads. He shakes his head.
‘So what is that supposed to mean?’ He sounds tired.
‘Don’t know. Whatever. Let’s just get to this sodding party?’ Andrew, still chuckling.
David nods and looks at his friend. Maybe he’s drunk, he reasons. Andrew is fraying at the edges, blurry.
Bedraggled, they push through the sodden crowds into the station. Travellers clutch sandwiches and stand in mute awe of the information board, their eyes frantically scan in search of the train out of here. Revenants waiting for a ticket home. The smell of cheese-and-onion pasties floats in the air as bored fluorescent policemen stand watch. Somewhere, an infant screams its lungs out with all the effort it can muster. Andrew wishes he could do the same. The floor of the station is smeared with muddy fractal swirls.
‘Filth,’ mutters Andy automatically, upon sight of the policemen.
Their train is due to leave from Platform 14 in two minutes. They half-run through the barriers, pausing to swipe Oysters, cursing TFL, and make the train with thirty seconds to spare. The unshaven pair, dripping wet and stinking of stale tobacco, raise a stern eyebrow from a man in a bespoke suit, who briefly looks up from his reading of
, he thinks to himself, and resumes reading, idly wondering if his wife at home in Kent has left dinner in the oven.
Andrew scans the inhabitants of this busy carriage. At the opposite end he sees Adrianna, the maybe-Italian. Her head is stuck in a book, something called Mujeres
. Andrew smiles, decides against saying hello here, she must be headed to The Balustrade. David would think it odd if he made contact now. He imagines himself and Adrianna, eco-punks on a literary pilgrimage, canoeing through Hungary down the Danube, beset by preternatural forces they cannot hope to understand. Stark contrast to the pissing rain, the cold concrete and smoky darkness. South London closing in around them.
The train reaches Peckham Rye and they disembark. A group of moody teenagers sit on metal benches, ignoring the No Smoking signs, smoking and part of the scenery. They are travelling nowhere. Adrianna disembarks also, heads for the exit, not noticing Andrew. He hopes, he really hopes, they share the same destination.
He looks around as David strides ahead, sees an old man, his face disfigured, in a multi-coloured jacket who sits alone at the far end of the station.
‘Come on’, says David with a sigh.
Adrianna curses the weather as she exits Peckham Rye.
Fuck this country
. Though it is more her home than anywhere else, despite her insistence of being a ‘world citizen’. She pulls up her hood, decides against lighting a cigarette. That can wait until The Balustrade. The rain is cold and insidious. Few people are on the streets. An old man huddles under the railway bridge, drinking strong cheap cider, beleaguered mothers with pushchairs brave the elements as they wait for a bus that will never come. A Turkish man leans out of his shop smoking, his eyes scanning dark skies for hidden messages.
She pounds up Peckham High Road, the party’s dull thump first faintly audible, then a physical presence, bass shuddering the grey pavement, rippling through her sternum and ribcage. A good sign.
Soaked, she reaches the venue. Shifting dark-clad figures crowd outside, swigging cheap alcohol from plastic bottles, a fug of cigarette smoke mingling with the damp mist. A pair of dogs dance in circles round each other, snapping at each other’s heels. Caught in silhouette for a moment, a man and his dog resemble a hideous black centaur, before the light shifts and reality is restored.
She scans the motley crowd for familiar faces.
A slap on her right shoulder.
She turns to see that hoped-for friendly face, Sofia, dark red hair cropped short, numerous metals punched through her ears, ear-to-ear grin. They hug, move out of the damp and into The Balustrade, pay the modest entry fee that funds endeavours unknown (and best not asked about), into a sea of people, steaming leather jackets, body heat and cigarette smoke now a welcome change from the unforgiving London weather. Off in the crowd, Adrianna thinks she sees someone, the rigged lights gleaming off dyed-green hair, a familiar woman. Cerise Edwards. The crowd shifts, ripples, and she’s gone. Cerise has been gone a long time. She is missing. Any number of women here have dyed hair, rose tattoos, the uniform look of counter-culture. It cannot be her.
A band takes to the ramshackle stage, heavy metallic grooves and dub rhythms played by people with encrusted dreadlocks and glinting teeth. Adrianna allows herself to relax, she’s reached her destination.
Her body forgives the decision to brave the freezing damp, to run the gauntlet of dancing dogs and black centaurs.
‘Let’s get a drink’ shouts Sofia over the din.
They move into a quieter, though still crowded, room, better lit and warm with body heat. They buy cans of lager, prices only mildly inflated, light cigarettes, and revel in the joy of temporary autonomy. The Balustrade, they know, cannot last. Eviction looms. Perhaps, Adrianna thinks to herself grinning, this is a
In one corner of this body-warm room, a young man slips into a ketamine coma, staring inside himself. A worried looking girl, no more than eighteen, tends to him.
He’ll be OK in a while
her manner says, her eyes betraying this isn’t the first time. Men smoke, drain cans of cider, swap stories and slyly eye the women around them. Everywhere, dilated pupils, insect-eyed revellers, their minds flooding with light and colour. The low-level lighting and occasional candle (surely a fire hazard, thinks Sofia absurdly) creates a chiaroscuro for black-clad figures to wander through. Refugees from a world gone wrong, that land of billboards and boutiques. Adrianna expects to see her earlier customer, Andrew, somewhere here, but there is no sign.
‘Sofia,’ Adrianna begins, ‘when were you last down Brick Lane way?’
Sofia drags on her cigarette, thinking.
‘Not in the last couple weeks’, she says, finally. ‘Why?’ she adds, leaking smoke.
‘You’re a vegetarian, right?’
‘Yeah. Yes. Well, a floundering vegan, to be precise.’ She laughs self-conciously. She’s used this line before.
‘Well, today I saw this . . . this deli butcher, I suppose . . . it was called
. It was selling all these . . .
you’d call them ‘boutique’, or ‘vintage’, maybe, meats, from animals like Irish elk, aurochs, mammoth, that kinda thing.’
Her brow crinkles in confusion. Sofia exhales, says simply, ‘They’re extinct.’
‘I know. Well, that’s what I thought.’ Adrianna’s voice rises in pitch. ‘But they were presenting it as the real deal.’
‘All the yummy-mummys going wild for it I imagine?’ Sofia laughs.
‘Something like that.’
More cans are drained, more cigarettes smoked. The night continues, loses its elasticity, becomes fluid, running through the two women’s fingers as band after band take to the stage and the crowd swells, a multi-limbed polysexual gestalt. They dance, snort substances with minor acquaintances, one of whom, an earnest young man from Toronto, becomes for Adrianna the night’s blurry sexual encounter.
‘You’ve seen The Troll Church haven’t you?’
These are the words the Canadian whispers in her ear. The shock becomes tears of joy, melts into arousal.
Somewhere throughout the night, she loses Sofia. Thinks she sees her chatting with Andrew and a friend of his, but she is too entwined with the Canadian to care. Adrianna has an image of the spriggan and Sofia partying together among damp foliage and abandoned railway arches. She feels Sofia is OK.
Images of extinct fauna’s carved and cured meats come at random bursts.
Auroch herds that once padded pateintly through Kent and Sussex. Irish elk immortalised in Lascaux pigment. The Canadian, mind afire now on alcohol and uppers, tells tall tales of Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, hunting defunct sea-mink, enjoying the interest Adrianna shows. The forgotten fauna that accompanied forgotten lives, fates intertwined. The destroyer will eventually invalidate himself once his enemy is annihilated. Only memory and folklore to pit oneself against. She smiles at his enthusiasm, responds with half-remembered reconstructions of her grandmother’s tales of the goilem, the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus, of Spring Heeled Jack bouncing over Victorian terraces, mischievous water sprites that inhabit the River Lea, of bear sightings on Hackney Marshes and crocodiles in the Olympic Park. Adrianna and the Canadian, they trade obscure stories, forgotten nuggets of history, lost narratives they’re desperate to resurrect. This hunger for meaning, inflamed by a chemical cocktail, all the more real for it and accompanied by an unspecified sense of loss.
Now it’s Adrianna’s turn and she tell her tale of The Troll Church and he understands. This is thrilling to the point of panic. The boutique Brick Lane butchers,
, she voices aloud her bewilderment and her concerns. He listens intently, she’s a word-storm, a stopper deep inside uncorked, the missing Cerise Edwards, Integrity. She realises she has her copy of
in her bag, pulls it out to show him. He smiles, loves the image of the boar-punks, says he’d like to go see the spriggan. He’s sure it features in an old horror story, something from the eighties maybe, or one of those tales with gibbous moons and tentacled monstrosities. She makes sure she returns the magazine to her bag before they go to back to his Peckham flat, undress, tumble and grasp on an unmade bed. Adrianna does not see the green-haired woman again that night.
She wakes early the next morning wrapped in unfamiliar sheets, the Canadian deep asleep beside her. With a pounding headache, she leaves quietly. She has his number and he has hers.
The Troll Church
The Troll Church crouches on its island off the coast of Helsinki, a quiet shaded place in the vast archipelago that swarms round the western Baltic Sea coast. Vartiosaari crawls with life in the brief summer months. Blueberry bushes carpet the forest floor, lush and endless. Raspberry bushes
angry red punctuation marks amongst them. Chanterelle mushrooms sprout with abandon from the damp earth with little care for their status as delicacies. London bohemians pay near ten pounds for the luxury of consuming one hundred and fifty grams of such fungi. The facts seem pathetic, unreal here. Clouds of mosquitoes, vicious horseflies, midges, gnats
gadfly, all form a united front of insect aggression, harassing visitors as they marvel at the pure unblemished white lichen, signals of health and clean air unknown in the cities.
Adrianna thinks of this place, the place she visited three years ago, a trip abroad to see the homeland of her Finnish friends. It stays with her in searing detail, too real, too defined. She wishes to revisit, to escape the crumbling reality of the English capital, where she sees defaced monuments to fallen cyclists, ghost bikes stolen by thieves so morally bankrupt it took all her strength and composure to keep it together. A swelling desire to recapture that other reality, the emotions she felt when she stood in Tonttukirkko, with warm damp and fungal rot, only insects and preternatural forces for company. Exiting Vartiosaari meant a short swim back to their rented dwellings on another, smaller, part of the archipelago
through the warm Baltic Sea where arctic terns floated overhead and great crested grebes bobbed on brackish water.
Here in warm amniotic brine, she could feel the shades, see memories of ondines in the lower depths, the rumblings of an extinct kraken miles below the surface, the water a mirror reflecting all that her life was not. The terns wheeled above her, grebes regarding her with avian curiosity. The insect life created a continual throbbing hum even as the birds feasted on them. They would always win. Strength in numbers.
There was no reality. There was nothing for her to get back to, and the future seemed to stretch on without promise She had forgotten her orders long ago, lost the reason she was out in the world, alive, breathing. Undercover police call this ‘mission drift’
forgetting who you are, why you are doing what you are doing
becoming something that you, at first, merely imitated.
‘Always move forward,’ as her progressive, socialist, friends would say. She was yearning for something that occurred in an unrecoverable past. Nostalgia was poison, she knew that. The feelings were there regardless.
It’s the alcohol, the drugs she took last night at the party, the ephemeral sexual encounter, this is what’s making her drift off into comedown reveries of The Troll Church, of
Jatulintarha, the stone maze, the ice age boulders, the Viking lookout points at the summit of the island where she and her friends had stopped, sweaty and humid after filling buckets of raspberries, blueberries, chanterelles, until they realised they were taking more than they required and had stopped to sit on the stones overlooking the archipelago, looking out to Helsinki itself, smoking rolling tobacco, sipping from plastic water bottles, swatting insects from their skin.
They walked The Chinese Path, an overgrown road crossing the island built long ago by Chinese prisoners of the Tsar, fortification workers aiding the elaborate defence of St Petersburg during the First World War. All but forgotten, slipped down a crack in history.
What struck her was the peace. She had had no contact with the digital world in over a week and her mind had adjusted to a different way of being. Sitting under swaying trees
looking out over the rippling water at night with her friends, voyeurs to the march of the seasons, animal rituals older than her entire species, the red wine and marijuana, the devouring of her book of feminist science fiction. Things inside her settled, calmed. ‘I feel fucking Zen!’ she exclaimed with a laugh.
On Vartiosaari she had stayed at The Troll Church whilst her companions had climbed higher up the rocky cliff, now twenty metres above sea level where before it had been touched by the lapping waves some four thousand years ago. She stood there, savouring the experience. She lies on her sofa, nauseous, and allows herself to be back in the moment.
Despite the presence of the crude wooden cross attached to the ancient rock, this is a pagan place, it exists in a world different to the one that Adrianna knows and battles with in her day-to-day life. The vegetation becomes lush and the birdsong disappears, the stink of humus and fungus, of fresh new growths bursting from leaf litter all stronger now, and she sees, really
Tonttukirkko, a gathering place at equinox and solstice, tusked masculine bipeds, polyamorous fauns, iridescent plant-men shimmering in shades of emerald, opal and malachite, shambling furry things of giant size that she may once have called trolls, impossibly lithe, woody females indulging in an orgiastic bacchanalia who whisper invitations to her in archaic tongues. Things not of her mythology. Primal creatures, Earth things, that dance and revel, drink and fornicate. A Troupe of Fools, scarred harlequins and grimacing jesters. She sees the Narwhal pod out to sea, breaking the surface as they laugh at the name ‘sea unicorn’. The trees shudder and sway, their motives and intentions opaque, the ground is a fluid nest of worms, shifting, buckling. A chance of falling, of being swallowed, crushed underfoot by the revellers. Tonttukirkko is alive and it’s real.
The shouts of her companions from the cliff
top brought her back. It was gone, evaporated. She’d shaken her head, blinking hard like a freshly woken coma victim. She rejoined her companions, who gave her odd looks, though this was soon forgotten as Adrianna regained her composure, seeming now even more invigorated by the place, by the island, and as she sat with them on the Viking lookout, staring out across the waters and the dotted islands, she thought of what she had seen, and she smiled, though she mentioned it to no one. Thought of the Vikings looking out, sentries on The Guardian Island, igniting their giant bonfires at the sight of unfamiliar ships, alerting the mainlanders against danger. She thought about who these people were, what they were like, what they hoped for and dreamed of.
Her future is opaque, her skin is becoming translucent, and the past is bottoming out.
Adrianna lies on her sofa, nauseous from the after-effects of chemicals and alcohol, her throat sore from coughing, from too many fags the night before. Her body still retains the feeling of an ill-advised sexual encounter. Re-runs of poorly executed American sitcoms flicker on the television, the volume down low. Traffic rumbles outside. A mother shouts at her children somewhere out on the street.
She sips her tea, and wishes she was somewhere else.
Adrianna is at work. It’s been a quiet morning, she’s hunted the racks and pulled out two xeroxed Integrity pamphlets,
Notes on Pulling the Sky Down
. She brews strong tea, puts her feet up on the desk, radio burbling softly in the background, and she reads.
Notes on Pulling the Sky Down
by Cerise Edwards
All things are ephemeral. Nothing ever dies. In the tiny village of Bircham Tofts, there is a roofless church entirely consumed by ivy, only the shape of its bell tower making the structure recognisable to passers by. The Green has taken it. A similar fate befell St. Mary’s in Fulmodeston, Norfolk, no longer needed and judged surplus to requirements. Not even worth redeveloping. Walk through Abney Cemetery in Stoke Newington and you’ll come across Dr. Watts’ Chapel, now only home to roosting pigeons, ground slimed with their guano, the overgrown foliage that gathers round its walls now home to the dead, the street drinkers, to those forced into fucking against mildewed fences with leaf-rot underfoot. The chapel stands in dreamlike guard over the first non-denominational graveyard in Europe. Part of The Magnificent Seven, dubbed so by the architectural historian Hugh Meller. Meller, he was a fan of Peckinpah’s film, depicting out-of-date men fighting against history, a ghost species, scorpions consumed by swarms of fire-red ants. Time oozed ever forward, and the name became increasingly apt.
The dwellings that you now eat, sleep, fuck, watch cookery programmes in, one day they’ll also be taken by encroaching foliage and you’ll be forgotten, your tiny hopes and dim ambitions now mere whispers in the rustling language of the trees.
We stumble blind through digital bracken, enmeshed in this hostile and poisonous forest of information that many of us can’t process, we record the tiny minutiae of our lives yet we remember nothing and we cannot see the wood for the trees.
I can’t remember a time without amnesia. Deep down in the dark forgotten tributaries of the London Underground sit adverts for irrelevant products, outdated films, long faded exhibitions from other eras. We will go the same way.
So what remains? What has permanence in a shifting landscape where the drive is forever forward, a world that creates answers to questions that were never asked and solutions to problems that never existed.
This cult for organic produce, fashion-vegetarianism, swells, even as we a craze for boutique and more ‘authentic’ flesh grows. The two seem somehow linked. First we feed on free range ostrich, consume buffalo steak, imports of Kudu and Springbok. Next will come diners whose incisors tear through the hanks of the Irish elk, the rump of the mammoth, the haunches of aurochs. After that, done consuming our own past, we will turn to the flesh of the centaur, the faun, the wodewose. We’ll devour our mythologies, gut them and strip the flesh to the bone. Suck out the marrow. Tonttukirkko will rot in silence as Abaton and Ulverton are bulldozed for redevelopment.
In the end, when there’s nothing but our own blank reflections, we will have only ourselves to consume. Cannibalism is our logical conclusion. We’ll pull the skies down upon us, and not even the Green will remember.
David sits on his battered sofa, back now in his flat in north-east London, the day after the party. It’s mid-afternoon and he’s just crawled out of bed, still wearing last night’s smoke stained clothes, his tongue sand-dry, blackened lungs and a fuzzy head testament to the evening’s excesses. He browses his shelves, thick with global cinemas, in search of something suitable, something to ignore. He picks up Andy’s copy of
, he’ll read the article on the Japanese New Wave auteurs he loves so much. He selects a title from that period
as his comedown film, a suitably trashy title elevated in later years to art-house status by American and British film critics. Pimps and prostitutes in a decimated, occupied post-war Japan. The film shudders into life, saturated sixties colours demanding his attention as the Nikkatsu logo appears brashly on screen. David thinks about the woman he met, Sofia, and ponders how long to leave it before he makes the call.
Andrew snores loudly on the other sofa, nasal wheezes and whistles. No sign of waking. Smashed out of his mind on the way home last night, he’d been talking loudly about some woman he’d met in a shop, spriggans, landscape film and
‘We’ve gotta back there tomorrow. I really want to try the Irish elk burgers!’
As a decent vegetarian, and someone who considered himself to be an enemy of middle-class fads and gentrification, David was less than happy at this prospect.
Andrew lies on his friend’s sofa and he dreams.
He’s returned to place of his childhood, a phantasmagoric shifting seascape of salt and shingle on the Kent coast. Salt-marshes, whispering reeds and honking clouds of Canada geese circling overhead. It is winter. No. This is a new ice age coming. He sees icebergs bobbing out to sea, gulls and terns in the air, an aggressive breach of the surface by angry leopard seals.
The garden of his mother’s house now leads directly down to the sea, through the salt marshes. He crunches through snow and freezing pebble, down to lapping waves that sigh an endless sigh. The sea-sighed. He laughs. He’s waterbound, trapped on an island.
This is England. He sees the Narwhal pod further out to sea. Unicorn tusks break the surface of the cold water, fine mist gusting up through their blowholes. Their blue-grey mottled backs are shiny with brine and glisten in the bright winter sunlight. He feels sadness he lacks words for, an unspecified sense of loss, indescribable joy, his emotions peaking and troughing with uniform regularity. Far out to sea, near the horizon, The Spike thrusts aggressively into the sky. Gulls and geese form an avian halo above its spire.
His mother calls him, an entreaty to return to the house, she has made tea, come out of the cold Andy, come out of the cold. Her voice is distant and drifts over the ages, from the past into the future. He turns back to look at the house, that building that contains and constrains his childhood. It’s invisible, obscured by sea mists, obfuscating freezing fog in which silhouetted hellequins and theriantropes dance and chase down the souls of the damned. It is cold.
Looking out toward the Narwhal is the disfigured Harlequin. His pale face is marred by scar tissue and his right eye weeps continually from his unknown injuries. His fractured and multi-hued attire is ragged and threadbare. He’s impossibly old and oddly familiar, his eyes betray wisdom that stretches back centuries. He sits upon a mound of black albino bones and watches the whispering reeds.
They share cheap whiskey from The Harlequin’s rusted hip-flask, it burns the throat and warms the stomach. The Narwhal pod swims its endless loop, forever out of reach, their tusks harpooning the surface. Sparring with the leopard seals.
Squalls form. Clouds gather.
Andrew sits with The Harlequin in the Narwhal garden, as freezing droplets begin to fall from the sky. Whisky slides down their throats.
‘Magnesium burns,’ says The Harlequin, pointing at his scars.
‘Andy, your tea is ready’. His mother’s voice, receding into the past.
A commotion out to sea, the leopard seals alarming the Narwhal pod. The screech of a herring gull. Another peak, another trough.
Somewhere out there, on an island he can’t see but knows is there, lies The Troll Church. Andrew wishes he were a winged navigator, flying high over this archipelago on which he finds himself marooned. He needs a boat, not this crippled, sad, jester who drowns his memories in liquor.
He turns to find his way back to his mother, away from the coast and through the rushes, to the rolling landscapes of the past.
The mist thickens. He cannot get back.
The Harlequin laughs. His breath is carcinogenic.
He cannot get back.