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I don’t know how I lost you. I remember there was that long time of searching for you, frantic and sick-making . . . I was almost ecstatic with anxiety. And then I found you, so that was alright. Only I lost you again. And I can’t make out how it happened.
I’m sitting out here on the flat roof you must remember, looking out over this dangerous city. There is, you remember, a dull view from my roof. There are no parks to break up the urban monotony, no towers worth a damn. Just an endless, featureless cross-hatching of brick and concrete, a drab chaos of interlacing backstreets stretching out interminably behind my house. I was disappointed when I first moved here; I didn’t see what I had in that view. Not until Bonfire Night.
I just caught a buffet of cold air and the sound of wet cloth in the wind. I saw nothing, of course, but I know that an early riser flew right past me. I can see dusk welling up behind the gas towers.
That night, November the fifth, I climbed up and watched the cheap fireworks roar up all around me. They burst at the level of my eyes, and I traced their routes in reverse to mark all the tiny gardens and balconies from which they flew. There was no way I could keep track; there were just too many. So I sat up there in the midst of all that red and gold and gawped in awe. That washed-out grey city I had ignored for days spewed out all that power, that sheer beautiful energy.
I was seduced then. I never forgot that display, I was never again fooled by the quiescence of the backstreets I saw from my bedroom window. They were dangerous. They remain dangerous.
But of course it’s a different kind of dangerous now. Everything’s changed. I floundered, I found you, I lost you again, and I’m stuck above these pavements with no one to help me.
I can hear hissing and gentle gibbering on the wind. They’re roosting close by, and with the creeping dark they’re stirring, and waking.
You never came round enough. There was I with my new flat above the betting shops and cheap hardware stores and grocers of Kilburn High Road. It was cheap and lively. I was a pig in shit. I was happy as Larry. I ate at the local Indian and went to work and self-consciously patronised the poky little independent bookshop, despite its pathetic stock. And we spoke on the phone and you even came by, a few times. Which was always excellent.
I know I never came to you. You lived in fucking Barnet. I’m only human.
What were you up to, anyway? How could I be so close to someone, love someone so much, and know so little about their life? You wafted into northwest London with your plastic bags, vague about where you’d been, vague about where you were going, who you were seeing, what you were up to. I still don’t know how you had the money to indulge your tastes for books and music. I still don’t understand what happened with you and that woman you had that fucked-up affair with.
I always liked how little our love-lives impacted on our relationship. We would spend the day playing arcade games and shooting the shit about x or y film, or comic, or album, or book, and only as an afterthought as you gathered yourself to go, we’d mention the heartache we were suffering, or the blissed-out perfection of our new lovers.
But I had you on tap. We might not speak for weeks, but one phone call was all it would ever need.
That won’t work now. I don’t dare touch my phone anymore. For a long time there was no dialling tone, only irregular bursts of static, as if my phone were scanning for signals. Or as if it were jamming them.
The last time I picked up the receiver something whispered to me down the wires, asked me a question in a reverential tone, in a language I did not understand, all sibilants and dentals. I put the phone down carefully and have not lifted it since.
So I learnt to see the view from my roof in the garish glow of fireworks, to hold it in the awe it deserved. That view is gone now. It’s changed. It has the same topography, it’s point for point the same as it ever was, but it’s been hollowed out and filled with something new. Those dark thoroughfares are no less beautiful, but everything has changed.
The angle of my window, the height of my roof, hid the tarmac and paving stones from me: I saw the tops of houses and walls and rubble and skips, but I couldn’t see ground level, I never saw a single human being walk those streets. And that lifeless panorama I saw brimmed with potential energy. The roads might be thronging, there might be a street party or a traffic accident or a riot just out of my sight. It was a very full emptiness I learnt to see, on Bonfire Night, a very charged desolation.
That charge has changed polarity. The desolation remains. Now I can see no one because no one is there. The roads are not thronging, and there are no street parties out there at all, nor could there ever be again.
Sometimes, of course, those streets must snap into sharp focus as a figure strides down them, determined and nervous, as I myself stride down Kilburn High Road when I leave the house. And usually the figure will be lucky, and reach the deserted supermarket without incident, and find food and leave and get home again, as I have been lucky.
Sometimes, though, they will fall through a faultline in the pavement and disappear with a despairing wail, and the street will be empty. Sometimes they will smell something enticing from a cosy-looking house, trip eager into the open front door, and be gone. Sometimes they will pass through glimmering filaments that dangle from the dirty trees, and they will be reeled in.
I imagine some of these things. I don’t know how people are disappeared, in these strange days, but hundreds of thousands, millions of souls have gone. London’s main streets, like the high road I can see from the front of my house, contain only a few anxious figures—a drunk, maybe, a lost-looking policeman listening to the gibberish from his radio, someone sitting nude in a doorway—everyone avoiding everyone else’s eyes.
The backstreets are almost deserted.
What’s it like where you are, Jake? Are you still out there in Barnet? Is it full? Has there been a rush to the suburbs?
I doubt it’s as dangerous as Kilburn.
Nowhere’s as dangerous as Kilburn.
I’ve found myself living in the Badlands.
This is where it’s all at, this is the centre. Only a few stupid shits like me live here now, and we are disappearing one by one. I have not seen the corduroy man for days, and the glowering youth who camped down in the bakery is no longer there.
We shouldn’t stay here. We have, after all, been warned.
Why do I stay? I could make my way in reasonable safety southwards, towards the centre. I’ve done it before; I know what to do. Travel at midday, clutch my A–Z like a talisman. I swear it protects me. It’s become my grimoire. It would take an hour or so to walk to Marble Arch, and it’s a main road all the way. Those are reasonable odds.
I’ve done it before, walked down Maida Vale, over the canal, full these days of obscure detritus. Past the tower on the Edgware Road with the exoskeleton of red girders that jut into the sky twenty feet above the flat roof. I have heard something padding and snorting in the confines of that high prison, caught a glimpse of glistening muscle and slick fur shaking the metal in agitation.
I think the things that flap drop food into the cage from above.
But get past that and I’m home free, onto Oxford Street, where most of London now lives. I was last there a month ago, and they’d done a decent job of it. Several shops are operating, accepting the absurd hand-scrawled notes that pass for currency, selling what items they can salvage, or make, or find delivered to them inexplicably in the morning.
They can’t escape it, of course, what’s happening to the city. Signs of it abound.
With so many people gone the city is generating its own rubbish. In the cracks of buildings and the dark spaces under abandoned cars little knots of matter are self-organising into grease-
stained chip wrappers, broken toys, cigarette packets, before snapping the tiny umbilicus that anchors them to the ground and drifting out across the streets. Even on Oxford Street every morning sees a fresh crop of litter, each filthy newborn piece marked with a minuscule puckered navel.
Even on Oxford Street, every day without fail in front of the newsagents, the bundles appear: the Telegraph and Lambeth News. The only papers to survive the quiet cataclysm. They are generated daily, written, published, and delivered by person or persons or forces unseen.
I already crept downstairs today, Jake, to pick up my copy of the Telegraph from across the road. The headline is “Autochthonic Masses Howling and Wet-Mouthed.” The subhead: “Pearl, Faeces, Broken Machines.”
But even with these reminders, Oxford Street is a reassuring place. Here, people get up and go to work, dress in clothes we would recognise from nine months ago, have coffee in the morning, and resolutely ignore the impossibility of what they are doing. So why don’t I stay there?
I think it’s the invitation from the Gaumont State that keeps me here, Jake.
I can’t leave Kilburn behind. There are secrets here I haven’t found. Kilburn is the centre of the new city, and the Gaumont State is the centre of Kilburn.
The Gaumont was inspired, preposterously, by New York’s Empire State Building. On a miniature scale, perhaps, but its lines and curves are dignified and impassive and easily ignore the low brick-and-dirt camouflage of their surroundings. It was still a cinema when I was a child, and I remember the symmetrical sweep of the twin staircases within, the opulence of chandelier and carpet and marble tracings.
Multiplexes, with their glorified video screens and tatty decor, are unimpressed by cinema. The Gaumont is of an age when film was still a miracle. It was a cathedral.
It closed and grew shabby. And then it opened again, to the electronic chords of slot machines in the vestibule. Outside, two huge neon standards explained the Gaumont’s new purpose in vertical script, reading downwards: Bingo.
You were my first thought, as soon as I knew something had happened. I don’t remember waking when the train pulled into London. My first memory is stepping off the carriage into the evening cool and feeling afraid.
It was no ESP, no sixth sense that told me something was wrong. It was my eyes.
The platform was full, as you would expect, but the crowd moved like none I had ever seen. There were no tides, no currents moving to and from the indicator board, the ticket counter, the shops. No fractal patterns emerged from this mass. The flap of a butterfly’s wing in one corner of the station would create no typhoons, no storms, not a sough of wind anywhere else. The deep order of chaos had broken down.
It looked as I imagine purgatory must. A huge room full of vacant souls milling atomised and pointless, each in personal despair.
I saw a guard, as alone as all the others.
What’s happened? I asked him. He was confused, shaking his head. He would not look at me. Something’s happened, he said. Something . . . there was a collapse . . . nothing works properly . . .
there’s been a . . . a breakdown . . .
He was being very inexact. That wasn’t his fault. It was a very inexact apocalypse.
Between the time I had closed my eyes on the train and the time I had opened them again, some organising principle had failed.
I’ve always imagined the occurrence in very literal terms. I have always envisaged a vast impossible building, a spiritual power station with an unstable core shitting out the world’s energy and connectivity. I’ve always envisaged the cogs and wheels of that unthinkable machinery overheating, some critical mass being reached . . . the mechanisms faltering and seizing up as the core explodes soundlessly and spews its poisonous fuel across the city and beyond.
In Bhopal, Union Carbide vomited up a torturing, killing bile. In Chernobyl the fallout was a more insidious cellular terrorism.
And now Kilburn erupts with vague entropy.
I know, Jake, I know, you can’t help smiling, can you? From the awesome and terrible to the ridiculous. The walls here are not stacked high with corpses. There is rarely any blood when the inhabitants of London disappear. But the city’s winding down, Jake, and Kilburn is the epicentre of the burnout.
I left the guard alone in his confusion.
Got to find Jake, I thought.
You’re probably smiling self-deprecatingly when you read that, but I swear to you it’s true. You’d been in the city when it happened, you had seen it. Think of it, Jake. I was asleep, in transit, neither here nor there. I didn’t know this city, I’d never been here before. But you’d watched it being born.
There was no one else in the city for me. You could be my guide, or we could at least be lost together.
The sky was utterly dead. It looked cut out of matte black paper and pasted above the silhouettes of the towers. All the pigeons were gone. We didn’t know it then, but the unseen flapping things had burst into existence full-grown and ravenous. In the first few hours they swept the skies quite clean of prey.
The streetlamps were still working, as they are now, but in any case there was nothing profound about the darkness. I wandered nervously, found a telephone box. It didn’t seem to want my money but it let me make the call anyway.
Your mother answered.
Hello, she said. She sounded listless and nonplussed.
I paused for far too long. I was groping for new etiquette in this new time. I had no sense of social rules, and I stammered as I wondered whether to say something about the change.
Is Jake there please? I finally said, banal and absurd.
He’s gone, she said. He’s not here. He went out this morning to shop, and he hasn’t come back.
Your brother came on the line then and spoke brusquely. He went to some bookshop, he said, and I knew where you were then.
It was the bookshop we found on the right as you leave Willesden Green station, where the slope of the high road begins to steepen. It is cheap and capricious. We were seduced by the immaculate edition of Voyage to Arcturus in the window, and entertained by the juxtaposition of Kierkegaard and Paul Daniels.
If I could have chosen where to be when London wound down, it would be in that zone, where the city first notices the sky, at the summit of a hill, surrounded by low streets that let sound escape into the clouds. Kilburn, ground zero, just over the thin bulwark of backstreets. Perhaps you had a presentiment that morning, Jake, and when the breakdown came you were ready, waiting in that perfect vantage point.
From the Trade Paperback edition.