The bell on the counter rang.
“Delivery for t.a.hulme, sign here!” A heavyset courier in filthy dark blue overalls and a baseball cap labelled “Quicksilver” handed him a pitted wooden clipboard with thin paper forms in yellow, pink and white. Carbons hung out like tongues of luncheon meat, a stubby pencil was attached to the bulldog clip. Soma scribbled rapidly on the top form: once, twice and in triplicate.
“You got a bog here, mate?”
“Just by the gantries on bay 16a.” Soma pointed down receding arcs of dark passage. Hot steam hissed out of a partly lit bay. There was a repeated clanging of metal on metal. the courier was trying to read his book – head turned sideways. Soma gave him an impatient look.
“Cheers mate, is it okay to leave the truck parked here for five minutes?”
“You certain, i’m not going to be clamped am i?” the courier laughed. Soma shook his head and turned his attention back to the book.
“…contained herein is the whole truth concerning…”, the wind was picking up he could hear it howling through the upper decks of the central station. He pushed back his swivel chair and bent under the desk to turn the fan heater on. There was a christmassy smell of old heating coils. He looked at his watch: just over two hours to go. “…the relationship between the archetypal,” he noted that word – have to look it up – he thought, “the archetypal entities that make up the illusion of consciousness and their relation to ultimate being.” ultimate being what?
The telephone rang.
“Hello, uh, hi mum – no, no, i’m fine.” He had an obscure twinge of guilt. The courier was coming back to his truck. Big hulking thing. Driver waved his key and the brake lights flared momentarily amber. He waved at Soma.
“Uh, look it’s kinda busy here – can I call you back…yeah, it’s always busy I
Into our first world…
Soma Jones sore rimmed eyes would not delight in the golden sunrise. Citrus tones from sour lemon through fleshy grapefruit pink into the blood orange of the sun purpled streamer clouds which dissipated into another perfect day. He removed his steel rimmed lunettes and rubbed some of the industrious nighttime hours from his face. Since suppertime yesterday evening he had been typing line after line of the Rushdean infinite recursion program into the clattering box of his Commodore 64. A vintage copy of C&VG dated 4th April 1984 propped in an ageing music stand was spreadeagled on the last page of the yellow programming pages. Hour after hour he had battled with the small dense typeface – an hour and a half from midnight to one thirty was wasted erasing several hundred lines on ZX Spectrum code he had mistakenly tapped into the machine. Finally at three in the morning, his tongue heavy with coarse coffee and tobacco, the last END statement went onto the screen. He saved onto a chrome tape with the ponderous Datasette and prepared himself for the hours of debugging ahead. As night turned into morning the high edwardian windows of his round tower room caught the first creeping hues of the new day’s spectrum. The clink and rattle of bottles being unloaded from the milkman’s blocky motorboat sent screams of anxiety into Jones’s neck and shoulders: He had been awake too long.
Throwing a light cape over his stooped shoulders and setting a wide brimmed hat on his sparse mousey hair Jones climbed down the anti-clockwise spiral staircase into the pine fitted kitchenette. He paused in the hallway to inspect his appearance in the indian teak framed mirror. Frowning he pushed the brim of his hat lower, selected a good mahogany cane from the faux medieval brolly stand and quickstepped down the hundred stairs to the damp portal lobby. Quickly he kicked a pile of mail from the twisted basketweave doormat and was out onto the quay that ran in an irregular oval around Finsbury Island. Sun rippled brilliantly over the Blackstock Reach littered with the early traffic of gondolas, boatcycles and tradesmen’s coracles. From the arched wings of the Chapel palace he could trace the grand Holloway canal from Odeon terminus to Angel. Jones hailed a grey and scarlett Islington Union gondola – the cabbie smart in his grey uniform turned the long boat towards the quay.
Stepping onto onto the broad pavement at Odeon terminus an archaic dark suited man sporting mirrored shades leading a stooped primitive man bustled past Jones to engage the gondola. It was all Jones could manage to maintain his footing on the cobblestones, he turned to glare after them but the suited man was absorbed in the practicalities of coaxing his apeman onto the boat. The great columns of the terminus and custom house rose majestic into the morning air. Passengers from all over Londres carried heavy baggages, porters pushed trolleys, airship staff from numerous major lines swaggered importantly between baffled queues of auslanders and citizens of the commonwealth. Taking the broadwalk at a brisk stride Jones made his way up the route of the Holloway canal toward a bistro called Djelli’s.
In the infra red darkness of the winter’s night there was barely a pixel of heat. In fact Soma Jones would have been undetectable if it hadn’t been for the “ho fun” pork with green peppers in a black bean sauce (number 73) that he carried in an aluminium foil dish in a white plastic bag in his old worn mittens.
He had waited for his food at the “lucky break”. Watched some dismal documentary about prostitution on the ill tuned Ferguson. Lads on bikes pushed past him to order their ships in curry sauce (number 118) and the crumpled black on the bench read a tattered crime novel. Its front cover was missing and only the Sun review and the blurb remained: “you won’t be able to put this one down as P.I.Debrowski cuts his bloody swathe through layer after layer of the hottest action…”
He waited for the train that morning and then he’d waited for lunch time. God, how he’d waited for lunchtime. Each hour his nerves had consciously traced the dial clockwise. Then he’d ‘phoned the bank and waited a half hour on the line to be told that his overdraft hadn’t been accepted. He’d waited until five o’clock for the day staff to leave and the last hour until nine o’clock he’d waited for the last customers to leave.
“Patience, my son.”
Along rainwet streets he tramped his heavy way. Trying to keep his toes from soaking in the dampness that had collected in his boots. He spread his hands over the surface area of his burden trying get the benefit of the heat it bled into the january night.
Reaching the top of the hill dullened by the long hours, aching and stoic he came around the corner at last into his own road.
Through the portico of Djelli’s Bistro Soma Jones did go…
The low wooden panelled lower deck was shaded at this time of morning – in the late afternoon it was clustered with chattering Islingtonian socialites. A broad staircase rose into the round upper gallery illuminated by an enormous octagonal skylight. Post-qawali jazz played quietly on recessed speakers giving the quiet bistro a jovial atmosphere. Jones waved to Frieda as she carried a tall teapot to the hawknosed figure of Eliott Peacocke. Peacocke nodded to Jones and folded the rectangular sail of his broadsheet into a compact half-tabloid, he uncrossed his long legs as Jones pulled up a chair.
“You look tired, old chap.” Said Peacocke peering over his tortoiseshell reading glasses.
“I’ve been up all night”
“Reviving the lost art?” Peacocke drained his cup. Jones nodded – he wondered if he really wanted to be here. Peacocke always irritated him with his seen-it-all cynicism. “Still plugging away at those old technologies, eh? I thought you’d know better. These people,” Jones indicated a group of fashionably dressed students, “hardly remember what it was like before the waters began to rise. But I thought that you of all people would appreciate that we are living in a new era.”
“An undemanding era!” Jones growled.
“Have you been talking to Maurice again? There are far fewer of us now and all this has given Britannia a new lease of life – ruling the waves and all that.”
Jones waved the thought away with a dismissive gesture. He turned in his chair hoping to catch the attention of Frieda or one of the other waitresses instead he was greeting by Djelli himself – a broad smile and a not inconsiderable girth he had developed in his old age.
“Soma Jones, the not inconsiderable wanderer in the realms of cybernetics returns!” Djelli seized Jones’s sickly claw with a large dry mit. “What can I get you?”
“Ratatouille,” Jones spluttered with difficulty, “ratatouille and stewed fruit.”
“Old habits die hard.” Peacocke interjected prompting an unexpected explosion of mirth from Djelli. Peacocke smirked knowingly and Jones felt his thin lips crack into, if not a smile certainly an amused grimace.
Soma Jones was strolling across the patchwork landscape of his dissolute youth. Unlikely connexions of road, park, river, café, pub and church dovetailed impossible combinations of landmarks and well-worn haunts into an ideal suburb unknown to public transport. His head empty and his battered shoulder bag filling with an increasing collection of small miracles: Ancient tape spools, well thumbed paperbacks, unidentifiable plastic oddments. Oh, this world was fruitful beyond contemplation.
Time had curved and concertinaed into myriad crystalline structures. The time spent at bus stations and waiting rooms had compressed and promised to fall away all together. The extended cross-sectional helix of time spent in libraries and bookshops eternalised into an emblem of the ideal. Internally lit familiar images scrolled beneath a bright blue sky blowing with a few early autumn trees.
Stepping up with dry-eyed nostalgia past afternoon yellowed brickwork of favourite bed-sits the day was drawing in. He skipped along well-worn short cuts, back ways, tow paths and behind a low brick wall Soma Jones spied an old church, a large church, virtually a cathedral. Pausing and looking back the way he’d come he realised he was lost. The distant traffic thrummed in the distance and late afternoon birdsong twittered in the avenues. It was becoming a little chilly and an orange light bathed the stone walls of the church and caught multi-faced and complex in the arched windows.
Up the steps and into the courtyard it was lush and grassy. There were no tombstones, no graves, only a closed off licence in the church precincts. Feeling uneasy he was about to return the way he’d come when he noticed a gaggle of canada geese cropping the lawn around the other side of the church. Jones smiled. The geese took little notice of him as he approached. Flying buttresses arced over the angular slate roof ending in an impressively gothic spire. Coming around to the high façade he could hear voices coming from inside. A large wooden sign read:
The Church of St.John of the Epiphany, Stratford Parish of Londres.
Soma Jones found himself kneeling in the midst of a square of kneeling celebrants. Ahead and to the right was another congregation stood in a square and at right angles to the first. Light, many coloured and rich, poured from a great round window high in the dark before him. All stood up…
“Lord have mercy.”
The man standing in front of him, long haired, bearded and wearing a dark raincoat, he recognised. But then he realised that this wasn’t Nathan, who was standing at the front of the other square in the robes of a priest. The man standing in front of him was Clide, Nathan’s brother. He turned and smiled.
“Clide, I haven’t seen you in years, how you doing?”
Clide, indistinct in the gloom of the chapel, limned in the firey colours of the stained-glass, smiled modestly. Jones looked more carefully, removed his glasses. He noticed that Clide was wearing the same type of glasses as him. Clide never wore glasses before?
“When did you get glasses?”
“Only recently, the frames are better than yours.” Clide removed his glasses. Jones compared them: He was right, where the crosspiece of his were rounded, Clide’s had a slight double chevron. The plastic of the top half of the frames was also a slight tortoise shell rather than black. Looking up again, Jones became uncertain that this was really Clide standing before him. His eyes and mouth seemed to change shape slightly as if they were still forming – a stranger whose identity was slowly developing before him.
“Christ have mercy.”
Leaving the twin congregations they walked up an echoing colonade towards a flight of steps leading down to the crypt.
“Your world is closing in, Jones. Every time you walk around your world it becomes smaller. You can’t sustain this vision for very long.”
“My world is non-dynamic. It has no need for development. The outside world might be larger in extent but it lacks the detail of mine and what’s your world anyway?”
“I am a bridge to the world of my Father. He brings everlasting life”
Jones smiled: Rich kids! Dependent of their inheritance for everything. “Well, that’s all very well for you. I never really expected this to last forever, nothing lasts forever.”
“Except for eternal life.”
Jones left quietly by the side door and went to look for a bus stop.
Soma Jones finished his ratatouille and began to doze off in the narcotic drone of conversation…
“How are your explorations of the old tunnels progressing, Eliott?” Djelli asked.
“Interestingly. Some of the newer lines – the Victoria, the Jubilee and it’s extensions have survived quite well while the Bakerloo and Norhern branches have largely succumbed to flooding. But we are employing teams of divers and have met with success in finding groups of wretches still living in an air bubble under Pimlico station. They have found passageways leading to Victoria and into the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.”
“Has the cathedral been flooded?”
“Impossible to tell – papist gondolas have been moored off the top of the campanile tower for years. Locals have claimed to smell incense coming from there.” Peacocke finished his tea and rose to his feet in a deft single motion. Jones was slumped back over his chair with his head gazing unseeing at the ceiling – mouth open. “Shall we wake him?”
“Seems cruel. Let him sleep – I’ll wake him up before Melissa arrives.”
Soma Jones had been lying face down in the cold alluvium of the Medway valley for two days. For some time he had forgot that he was alive, staring unblinking at a crop of chalk rising from the dirty weeds and scattered rubbish of the ambush. He became aware again when his leg was warmed by fresh urine that ran along his trousers by some freak of osmosis. He remained prone for some hours piecing together the thirty seconds of the firefight that had wiped out his unit.
The 53rd Stratford Rifles had been operating behind enemy territory. Like the Romans before them they attempted to cross the river Medway at Strood to make devastating raids on the City of Rochester. They had reckoned without the wiliness and viciousness of certain elements of the 28th Chatham Hussars who had sprung their trap from behind the broken concrete stumps of the old motorway bridge. Within seconds the vanguard of the Stratford infantrymen had been cut down by a withering hail of fire from the heavy Vickers machine gun camouflaged in the wreckage of the bridge. Sergeant Van Hoorn was one of the first to fall and Jones’s comrades Privates Bligh and Mason were also lost in those decisive moments of surprise as were many of Lance Corporal Baccioni and his cohorts who had antagonised him so cruelly in the barracks. Jones himself instinctively dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead. Before the minute was up it was all over. Jones hardly dared breathe as heavy boots trod around him, the groans of the dying stilled by the bayonets of the jubilant Kentish soldiers. That Jones had survived was a small miracle – the blood of Private Khan that splattered Jones drab woollen tunic apparently corroborated his act in the eyes of the roughly joking victors.
Somewhere in the hours that followed he began to believe in his feigned death.
By the time the mid-day crowds had started to strain the wooden seams of Djelli’s bistro it had become quite warm outside. The light hazy cloud had dissipated over the process of the morning and now clerks, office boys, students and solicitors, employees of the council and the unemployed and the idle dilettantes made their way into the bars and the restaurants and the cafes and the tea houses of the Holloway Canal.
And still Soma Jones slept. The way he draped his small pigeonish frame over the back of the chair, head thrown back towards the sunny portal of the bistro caused him to snore quite loudly. The bustling Islington crowd edged around the recumbent Jones wedging themselves behind the round marble topped tables or slouching stylishly against the bar. Frieda and Beatrice juggled with trays of iced tea, fruit juices, coffee, croque monsieur, pasties and pastries and still Soma Jones slept.
“Oh, speak to me,” Soma Jones sang, “Adam and Eve!” , the smell of drying linen filled the living room as the central heating began to warm. so cold for this time of year. The disturbances.
“That was ‘Missouri’ from the new album by Low on Radio Free Stratford. Coming up in fifteen minutes our continuing series ‘Art Muzak Poetry and the Land on Four Stilts’.” the radio spluttered with atmospherics and honked into Glenn Miller. Jones kicked off his work boots – sodden military socks rucked on his ankles long grey-green tongues extending from the toes. he padded duck-footed into the kitchen.
“I’ll kill you – you fucking cow!” the neighbours muffled bellows ended with a sickening thud. Jones instinctively covered his ears with the long sleeves of his cardigan and whimpered. Tea – he thought. Always use freshly drawn water. he lifted the heavy kettle from sink to the hob of his Baby Belling. the plates on the draining board rattled and sang as the 20:48 to Straford low-level rolled under the Victorian brick arc five storeys below.
“Soma! Soma!” mum shouted from her room. Jones placed crumpets under the grill and shook his long sleeves impatiently. “Don’t call me, Mum, you’re three years dead and you never drank tea!” he laughed shivering at his own wit. Kettle boils. Teabags from PG, Tate and Lyle sugar from Silvertown and milk from the cow. Moo!
“…and now part one of the new series of…” the radio hissed sadistically. Jones piled scones on his plate burning fingers. Turn off the grill – always turn off the grill. Coming into the living room the atmospherics were breaking up the signal. “I never want to see you again!” slam of front door and rattle of letterbox next door. Jones puts down plate and mug on the coffee table and wrestles with the knob on the wireless.
“Cark! ART MUZAK POETRY AND THE LAND ON FOUR STILTS…”
Soma Jones pushed a Sainsbury’s shopping trolley across the zebra crossing loaded with a large antiquated wooden wireless set. He grinned from the depths of his green parka into the icy Stratford air rather pleased with his moment of inspiration. He had hefted the old box up the slope of his road some half-hour, a disenfranchised Sisyphus in NHS specs.
“Ding!” the bell of Super-fi said and Norman Paige sat up with a start from his newsrag. Seeing the shopping trolley burdened with a great heap of aged oak his forward curling eyebrows contracted his forehead into a concertina of wrinkles.
“You do wireless repairs?”
“Could you have a look at this?”
“Can you give me a hand? It’s rather heavy.”
Hefting the box into the small floorspace of the shop they looked down at the radio for some minutes hands on hips panting. Soma wheeled the trolley into the street. Coming back in he found the proprietor squatting behind the cabinet fiddling with a screwdriver.
“It’s very old!”
“Valves – hard to find.”
“It’ll cost you.”
“You could buy a good new radio for that.” Paige indicated rows of plastic boxes. Sleek angles. Digital read-outs. Sony, Phillips, Binatone, Osem, Hitachi. Jones shook his head. Paige scratched his scalp, “I could be some time working on this.”
“A week?” Jones pleaded, “I need it by next week.” it was Paige’s turn to shake his head. He mouthed a silent “no”. Jones reached into his pocket for a humbug – offered Paige one, who refused – and took one himself. he sucked hard and concentrated: no radio for two weeks. He’d miss the next ART, MUZAK, POETRY & THE LAND ON FOUR STILTS and possibly the one after. “That’s a long time without a radio.”
“Can’t you borrow one from a neighbour?” Paige reached over his glass counter for his receipt book.
Horsefaced Elliott Peacocke strode out of St.John’s at Stratford into the church gardens – an enormous traffic island supporting the light stone gothic mountain and the eight-sided column dedicated to the martyrs of Stratford. Buzzing cars, motorcycles and roaring lorries carried a constant stream of pilgrims to and from the red brick mall of the Stratford centre and the aeroglide arc of the reconditioned Stratford low-level rail nexus. South to Leamouth, the Thames, the Docklands and to the North: Leyton, Walthamstow marshes and the great Essex lung – Epping forest.
“These are they which came out of great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Peacocke read, his brow creasing with high Anglican piety. Fruit salad reggae bounced across the zebra crossing from a stall set up outside the sliding doors of the Stratford centre. Stopped. There was a moment of still broken by a rattle of pneumatics from the Bovis development site.
“Hallo father Elliott!” a short figure in a green parka and thick specs greeted him from a memorial bench.
“Oh hallo…” Peacocke hesitated searching his memory and flicked his long scarf, “…Soma, what brings you to the house of the lord?”
“I was wondering if I could ask you a favour…”
Raj opened the door of the house to find a crumpled suited Soma Jones standing on the doorstep with an enquiring expression on his bespectacled mug. Raj’s face opened into its customary sardonic leer: “That Soma boy is here again, ‘Liss!” he roared up the stairs. His features softened into paternalism. “Come on in, boy. we’ll have a cup of tea in the kitchen while we’re waiting for her ladyship.”
The hallway was spiced with the heady aroma of garam masala. Soma ran his fingers up the greengold flock wallpaper following the old Sri Lankan. The living room was all yellow bulblight crackling with the bluish glow of children television. Jamie and Lee hid behind the sofa shooting capguns at the screen. Escorting the guest down the stairs to the kitchen Raj feigned death from bullet wounds instantly recovering into a broadfaced grin. Soma looked back into the living room to see the boys pulling pigfaced expressions at him.
In the kitchen Edith waved a marigold clad hand from the sink. Great clouds of fairy liquid bubbles threatening the hard flashing chrome of the taps and draining board. The whole room was a friendly orange brown chaos. The blue of the twighlit garden peering at the windows. crash bang two cats chased in through the catflap.
Soma sat on the edge of a coat strewn bench beside the pine dining table. Raj bounded around the kitchen. Kettle and cups, Tescos coffee granules. Fridge door slam. Hassle of teaspoons.
“You come straight from work, love?” Edith drained another sinkful. Rinsed the basin and crashed more plates across the sink.
“Yes, i finish early on Thursdays.”
“He’ll be a manager one day,” Raj bustled, seemingly quite incapable of containing his mirth.
“I was thinking of leaving.”
“Going back to college? Better yourself? You have to these days dear. You can’t get on with a handful GCSE these days.” Edith poured more fairy liquid into the basin. The kettle clicked to a boil and steamed the window milkwhite. The stairs thumped: Jamie and Lee galloped across the floor setting the fridge door colliding with a fluffy black and white cat.
“I think I might leave the country,” Soma felt he might be developing a headache. Edith yelled something at the kids and Raj gave a roar of laughter banging a humourous mug of coffee onto the table beside soma: “Remember who’s boss!” it read. The sounds of the room were fogged as if heard from underwater – Soma hung his head and inspected the mustard and brown tessalations of the linoleum.
He looked up.
Floating through the doorway entirely removed from the family vortex of the kitchen there she was. melissa. Her gait lifted the simplicity of her blue Levis and AC DC t-shirt into a new level of revelation. Soma stared at this apparition floating across the lino – the neon of the glowbar turning her great blonde locks into a halo.
Soma could hear a whistling in his ears.
zzzzkzkzkzk BVXRRRRRTZ xxxxxxxxxxctctct “…all yoo need is…” kxvzzzrzrzrrzt WHEEEEEEEEEZXT “…the prime minister, Mr Cornelius, in
negotiations with the Chinese Premier this morning…” kzzzzzzzzzt “SATISFACTION!” zxxzxzxzx PWEEEEEEEEEEEEzzzzzzzzzzfzkt “…trailing
suspect near Stratford low…” PRRRRKZZZF hzhzhzhkhzhk PHIZZZZaaaaak “Shub Niggurath…” pwiiiiz “…he is the gate…”
BLKLKBKLKBBBBTKTKTKtktkkt “….Victor the Cleaner awoke to find his ear nailed to the…” ftftftft.
Raj had been very good to Soma Jones.
By the time Soma woke up it was 10.30 in the evening. Raj bought him some brandy and laughed at him good naturedly.
“You don’t want to be acting like that in front of the ladies, oh no!”
Their subsequent conversation, touched upon many diverse subjects: politics, religion, astronomy, fantasy, tealeaf divination, family history, shopping centre design and finally and most fruitfully their mutual interest in a certain weekly radio series. So Soma left that night, somewhat later than he had expected, with a handful of cassette tapes and a Philips portable radio-cassette to borrow until such at time…
krrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrzt CHAKRRRRTVVVVzzzz “…it was really screaming lord…” kzaaaaaaaaaaaaaakjj HJHJHJJHJJHJJttttttttkkkkkK K! “…what in
the gods’ name has happened to Agent Czukay?” bbbtwtwtwtwtwtkHSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! ttktktktktkktktk WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! phew
phew “…i want a station of my own…” kzaaaaaaaaaaaaaa kzaaaaaaaaaaaa “…originally a message board dealing with German…” buzzzzzzzzzzz ftchj
“…ALL WE HEAR IS!” btbtbtb WHIIIIING G G G “…since the destruction of the Kingsferry Bridge…” grrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzk!
He was just having a little problem tuning.
ssssssssshhhhhhhhhht WHOOOP! klk klk “…and now ART, MUZAK, POETRY & THE LAND ON FOUR STILTS!