You’re On The Thirty-Eight
You’re at Shaftesbury Avenue with your arm out, just before the corner with Wardour Street. You board the bus, flatten your oyster on the reader, nod to the driver. You go upstairs, all the way to the back. The window is drowning in condensation. You wipe it with your sleeve.
You’ve eaten at Misatos again. You’ve run out of ideas. This is the last time, you swear. Soho has always looked the same to you. Always full of possibility, always failing to live up to the hype. She said you had to know the private clubs, the secret drinking holes to make Soho worthwhile. She was always right.
Chicken katsu sits in your stomach. Breadcrumbs await digestion. A bit of sashimi repeats in your throat.
Out the window; the Curzon cinema. The bus lingers, a row of red lights ahead of it, blocking acceleration. Dogville is screening. She appears at the café counter with you. She is animated. She touches your arm. You buy her a coffee. She loved the moment James Caan turned up. You put three sugars in your coffee. You walk to a table together, sit down, knees touch, neither flinches.
The bus moves. Grumbles forward. You kick the beer can under the seat in front. The metal clang is satisfying. Maybe you should have drunk at that place with the piano. Maybe she would have been there, sitting where you always sat. Drinking Honey Dew and threatening to play chopsticks just to embarrass you.
Doubtful. She wasn’t in Misatos. She won’t be anywhere else.
Another red light.
Where the Pizza Hut became a Pasta Hut and changed back before anyone else noticed. Where Johan’s Colombian girlfriend had a flat. When it was still possible to know someone who lived in WC2. When Johan said he wasn’t too serious about this girl because she was too fat. Where she had slapped Johan for talking about his girlfriend in such a way while she was letting him stay there for free. Where you’d never seen that side of her, but you liked it.
You wipe the window clear again. It steams up quickly. You have to keep wiping to see where you are, where the bus is stopping. You’ve always had hot breath. She used to say you were her radiator. Warmed her cold hands on your back, squirmed her cold feet on your calves.
You’re outside the theatre. But it’s Les Miserables playing, not The Commitments. You’re waiting for her. An old couple look lost, they pull out a map. Turn it one way up, then the other. Point at Charing Cross Road. They point at Old Compton Street. You squish your Camel under your Converse heel and ask them if they need help. Trocadero, they say. You point them down the road and tell them it’s just after Bar Rhumba, opposite the McDonald’s, just before the guy with the caricatures. You’re pleased with yourself. You stand there for another fifteen minutes helping anyone who looks at a street sign or stops mid-stride. You think about how this will sound when you tell her what you’ve been doing. You think about making it sound magnanimous with a great knowledge of this vast capital. Rather than stoned and bored. Which is what you are.
Bus turns left.
People move on.
You rub the thinning hair on your head. You caught sight of the growing patch of scalp in the mirror downstairs as you were boarding. You’re going to have to shave it all off soon, forever. No more. You don’t want to be that guy. The one who can’t accept his loss. But hey, your hair had a good run. The curls, the bouncy curls. Jew-fro, she called it. A mess, your mother called it. Someone on the stairs at a rave in Vauxhall said you looked like Marv from Home Alone.
Outside Foyles, the bus stops to pick up people with their arms held out. You wipe the window again. A wet bandit.
At this height, top deck, back seat, you can see the gallery. You’re in there, with her, listening to Hanif Kureishi. Thinking, you should never meet your heroes. He talks like your dad; arrogant, dismissive. You want to tell him that the sequence in the Black Album when Shahid took ecstasy for the first time is the closest you’ve found to reading about that experience. That the first time you read it you actually started to feel a rush coming from some serotonin memory bank stuck permanently in a Ram Records night at The End. Before it moved to the O2. Before Crossrail changed everything round here. When Mark B and Blade headlined the Mean Fiddler, when Gangstarr sold out the Astoria. When Cheapskates sounded, on paper, like a fun night out. But you don’t tell him. You just seethe and she tells you its okay, the author being a dick doesn’t make the writing any worse. But it does. It really does.
The bus sneezes and turns right because Charing Cross no longer meets Oxford Street. You wouldn’t be able to direct the tourists now. You’d send them to dead ends and wrong turns. This part of the city isn’t for you anymore. She’s no longer here and you’re no longer welcome.
The bus gets a clean run to Savoir Faire. You still don’t know what that means, despite asking her many times. She’s next to you explaining it but it’s going in one and out the other because you’re drunk and that engagement party in that posh hotel over looking Leicester Square has overwhelmed you. You weren’t supposed to know people that rich. Not school friends anyway. You were all supposed to grow together, or you’d grow apart.
The back of the seat in front of you has chewing gum stuck to it. You prod it. You’re peeling off a sticker from a record you bought at Mr Bongo’s. You stick it to the seat. The vinyl is heavy, 180 grams. It smells like the edge of slice of edam. You can’t wait to get home and start a mix session.
You take your iPhone out and put your headphones on. Shuffle happens. Some John Hopkins comes on, Sun Harmonics. It sounds like the morning after the night before a big one. You don’t listen for long. Distracted by the webbing between your thumb and forefinger. It’s dry, cracked, whiter than the rest of your hand. The wrinkles are spreading out further across your hand then you’ve noticed before.
A couple of kids get on and sit top deck, front seat. They play fight.
Before long you’re at Gray’s Inn.
You’ve passed yourself marching with her on protests down Kingsway. You’ve gathered with her at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. You’ve sold books with her in Conway Hall. There’s another Italian take away place opposite the Pret that looks like the same one you and her would eat at everyday she was at college. The one she called Man-gee-ahh-ree, with a luscious smile. You were proud of her when she graduated.
You’re skating down Exmouth Market. You on a skate board, her on a BMX.
You’re wondering what was there before they built the Sadler’s Wells.
You’re asking to open an account at the Cooperative Bank.
You’re tripping outside the Vue Cinema on mushrooms. The winged sculpture is going to take off, you’re sure of it. You’re going inside, giggling together, spines tingling. You’re trying to pay for a ticket to see the Matrix Reloaded.
You’re outside the Duke of York, on the tables having a beer with James before you go to South America for a year. He can tell you’re both happy. He says he’s got a job working on the set of Big Brother.
The bus is full now. Full of the all the people who get off the tube at Angel and get this bus to places the tube doesn’t go. The place you ended up. Where you live. Where you work. Where you spend all your time. Where nights in WC2 feel like a lifetime ago but can never leave you alone.
This bus hasn’t taken you to Shaftesbury Avenue since last year. You haven’t gone further than Mount Pleasant for a long time. It’s a shuttle run. Everything you have, apart from her, is within the next ten stops. Upper street – Essex Road – Balls Pond Road – Dalston Lane.
You’ll see you favourite pub. You’ll see your supermarket and your street market. You’ll see your launderette, your chicken shop. You’ll see your office. You’ll see your flat before you ring the bell and get off half way down the road towards Mare Street.
How many times have you rung that bell? How many times did you called her phone just to hear her voice mail message before you couldn’t afford to pay her contract anymore? Is this the third year now you’ve been to Misatos on this date, on your own? Is this the last time you’re going to do this? She’s not coming back.
You’ll be back next year, ordering two bento boxes like you did when she was here. And you’ll order two sakes. And you’ll sit one side of the table and eat her portion and then sit the other side and eat yours. And you’ll still get on the number 38 opposite the Bar Rhumba and you’ll still see her walk out of the club with you laughing, kissing, still dancing to the Brazillian drum and bass pounding from below. And you wonder how long you’ll do this. How much more of your life will just exist on ten streets of the Islington/Hackney border punctuated by an annual ride all the way into town.
She’s not coming back but you can’t leave her here.
If you move away, she moves away. You might never see her again.
The Number 38 keeps her alive.
The E8 postcode is hers. It’s yours. Don’t let it go.
She’s not coming back.
The city might change but she’ll always be there if you let her.
Don’t let the city build over her.
She’s already buried here.
Don’t let the city build over her.
Kit is a writer, editor and broadcaster. He co-founded and co-runs Influx Press, a small indie that publishes ‘site-specific’ literature. He hosts Mapping the Metropolis, a literature and urbanism show on London’s Resonance 104.4FM.