It all started like so many nights: Buying a ticket from a tout outside the tramshed at the top end of Mombassastrasse, realising that he’d sold me a kid’s four zone pass, catching up with the fucker as he fast-walked up the street, and extracting a two zone hopper from him instead. The hopper would be fine for my purposes, all that I really needed was to get into the network and then the inspectors of the stress-blinded graveyard shift wouldn’t notice if I was waving a beermat in their faces.
I caught a green and red liveried Liverman’s Harrisbus to the far eastern run of the Mombassastrasse and then hopped across the tracks to catch one of those old open-backed double-deckers for the Grands Boulevards. The chocolate-brown brick of the west turned to a red-speckled green and there the lights on the Broadway caught in the fountains and water sculptures of the Centro Plaza and refracted in the top deck windows of the autobus. The seats began to fill out with large wedding-cake ladies and dark-suited naratchiks splashed with eau-de-cologne. I jumped off at the Circus just before we hit Chinatown and took the back roads from Pomp-a-l’aix to the Windmill. My destination: The Trattoria Espagnol.
The bar behind the Trattoria was filled with bohemians from Petit Fours, a TV production team celebrating the end of a long running Welsh Gangster Soap and the rugby team from the Polyversity on the hill. I brushed through the throng in the darkened space past the coloured lights of the bar and found the old gang from the Wassgotterspeck viaduct. Tim and Manda and Ilya and Rooge were there, pissed or inhaling vapours. An acrid whiff of amol nitrate over the table. The two Mikes were fighting out old territorial ground as their spouses and ex-spouses discussed the price of eggs. But most of all the twins Rose and Tanzy were here. It was their birthday.
I could spend another two thousand words describing the carnage that night: The tears and recriminations; old stories revived like so many stagnant corpses. We drank toasts and we jostled the rugger lads and the bohos. Fights were narrowly avoided by Tanzy’s delicate diplomacy and we moved from bar to bar along the Windmill up to Sigmundbahn. What they call “walking the line” in the Malabar district. Somewhere we lost Rooge in a vapour-haze and picked up a pair of wedding-cake ladies in Jenny Ondioline’s. Rose and I fought, argued, spurned one another’s attention and played the double-act against beautiful outsiders. Nudging and scowling our way to the Grands Boulevards in an opium fug.
Rose was two years older than me. She could play professional to my degenerate, slattern to my puritan, and vice-versa. In other circumstances we were strangely uncomfortable with one another. Sometimes I’d wonder if there was any reason we knew each other at all. As if we only existed as a dynamic, not as a combined essence. Sympathy was almost more than I could take and my flippant barbs seemed capable of upsetting the fragile nervous structure that held back what could have been a real acrimony.
And I don’t know what happened that made me hide from her in the maze of compartments at Papa Gelato’s. She had picked up a sensitive poetic rugger lad at the Limpo-Po Swamp Cafe who I had liked very much. The three of us saw off a good deal of red wine and most of his Black Russian fags. Two or three of the Mike’s spouses were dancing in the parquet floorspace in the centre of Gelato’s while a gypsy troupe from Meopham played a lively two step. I was playing a hand of inscrutable masks, stopping at a number of tables to blag cigarettes and offering to find the bar. No mean feat in the labyrinth of Papa Gelato’s. With the accumulated dollars from a half hour of scrounging I felt a breeze coming from the next corner and took myself out into the street.
It was cold out there. The night had settled on the broadband autostrada that curved over the Northway. Hearing a familiar voice calling my name from behind I made haste, out into the street, pulling my hat over my eyes and feeling the mask deepen around me. The pong of a dozen kebabish fought the gas and ammonia of the buzzing road. The yellowish rectangles of a double-decker travelling in the Malabar direction loomed into the street and I hailed it as near the bus stand as I could reach. I hopped off near the southern end of the Windmill and ran after a night bus, really not much more than a converted transit, as far as the old supermarket on the Broadway.
After I’d spent an hour looking at my lengthening face is the shop windows of all-night stationary suppliers, I caught two or three night buses back and forwards along Mombassastrasse. Avoiding the end near the tramshed and curving my course closer to the Paperwhite parc to avoid the lights and water at the Plaza, I felt my melancholy lift. It was an honour and a privilege to be on one’s own in the night-time in the borough of St Real. The brown black brickwork of town houses near the park, lit here and there with the low lighting of formal drawing rooms, and the wind in the elms that border the beginnings of Nuthatch and Chessolp. My head began to clear in the sharp balmy air. Feeling myself in the mood for further adventures I caught the tram that runs through the Plaza towards Petits Fours.
Dazzled by the rainbow sparkling fountains I was taken by surprise as a ticket inspector, in his dark green cap with red trim, boarded the tram. Two hours earlier in the height of intoxication I would have slapped his face and tossed his notebook out of the window. He had the eyes of a zealot, a man who would know the difference between a two zone hopper and an central zone travel permit. The shame faced loser who was currently turning out his pockets in search of a spurious ticket-he-lost bought me some time. I brushed past both and leapt off the departing tram across the road from the Nova Basilica cathedral.
It must have been a madness or an abject perversity that carried me over the road. I was out of sorts, out of my zone. I made a point of keeping the Nova Basilica always at a remove, behind a block, behind my back. But at this moment I was seeking a sanctuary, I was shaken by the surprise that the night had thrown at me. I’d tackled the challenge badly, I was tame, lame, a sheep not a wolf. I was looking for the good shepherd. And besides the door was open. It was a tall arched portal with big wooden doors propped open. Halberdiers with polished breastplates and crested casques stood on either side of the entrance, a papal guard. Inside, through plate glass doors, the open entrance hall was lit with discrete uplighters. Behind a closed door marked with a big number two choirs could be heard singing and the whole place reeked of incense and age.
To the right, and on a raised dias stood the Popemobile: A baroque, arched carriage in burnished high gloss black, trimmed with too much gold. A quadrega of four mechanical greyhounds, also in gold, stood paused in mid motion before it. The halberdier behind the carriage noted my interest and began to pace towards me. I smiled at him and sized up the thick oily darkness of the gold framed painting that covered most of one wall. A suffering bearded man died with eyes rolled to heaven his supine tortured luxuriant body held by two women, one in blue – the other in red, but otherwise indistinguishable. Beneath the painting an old irish woman sat on some steps knitting.
“It is a beautiful carriage, no?” she asked from somewhere in that creased face. I looked first up at the painting and then over to the Popemobile, uncertain to which she was referring.
“A lot of gold.”
“It’s mostly gold leaf.”
“What does gold leaf cost per ounce these days?” I laughed, we both laughed.
“He’s a good lad,” she said. Again I looked from one to the other.
“You must be proud of him.”
“My son!” she smiled.
There was a call of clarions and bells and the big doors opened. A procession began to appear, behind them I could see the arched perspectives of the sanctuary, the great banners in their deep reds and blues rolling down from the high recesses of the roof. Cardinals, clerical, hierarchs and hierophants, the glorious and great of the papal host in slow procession, like the ghostly wild hunt of Paperwhite Parc but heavy with the solid rich glory of Mother Church. Heaven had come to earth to walk the night-touched strada of Kilburn Inreal and to see in the rising of the solar orb over a new day.