DRAMATIC SOCIETY

ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT














ONE


“Stone the crows, thought you’d done a runner,” said Karl.

“Wouldn’t be the first,” said Ricky.

They were in the kitchen making chilli. An enormous chilli that would last the week, this was Karl and Ricky’s Sunday ritual.

“May here?”

“In the demibed watching Thrones,” said Ricky.

Gruff barks and grunts could be heard coming from the bedroom. They had hefty speakers in there and a projector to beam shows on the wall.

“Is she pissed off?”

“Nah, got a barking ’gover is all,” said Karl. “You in for the day?”

“Yeah. Need a hand?”

“Chop these, would you?” he said, handing over some carrots.

He found Karl and Ricky via Gumtree: Spacious demibed available in beautiful house in Streatham. Sharing with two chilled-out Aussies. Two min walk from bus stop. At £70 a week, it was the best deal going. Cheap is what mattered, cheap ruled. Before moving to London, his living costs spiralled. Chained to property, he lost track of direct debits. So here he now was, in a three-man roomshare, seeking a simpler, streamlined, all-inclusive existence.

“So where’d you get to?” said Karl, as he scooped seeds out of a pepper.

“I caught the wrong bus.”

“All night?”

“I…slept in a park.”

“Fuck!” said Karl.

“Abject, fella, abject,” said Ricky.

Waking on an empty stretch of grass, covered by a floating layer of misty grey that the dawn light gradually dissipated, to revive him, like a sunshine smoothie, was actually sort of magic.

This magic, coupled with the drink, spurred him to arrange a morning quickie. See, in the thrall of a beckoning hangover, faced with the accompanying regrets, about specific choices and grander themes, he felt simultaneously incapacitated and filled with an urge to make changes, effective immediately.

“What’s that?” said Karl, looking at a bottle in his hand.

“Stock. Thought we could add it to the chilli.”

“Ah bonzer, bung it in.”

About to pour it in, Ricky grabbed his wrist: “What kind of stock?”

“Meat.”

“Hold up.” Ricky took the bottle. “Wonder could it o’erpower the chilli? Cor, it is a bit niffy. Where’d you get it?”

“A farmer’s market.”

This was a lie. His quickie had bottles and bottles of stock. He gave him one with the words, “Something to remember me by.”

“Fuck that. Don’t go near farmer’s markets. Gives me the shits, organic.”

“Don’t talk to me about shits,” said May, entering wearing a baggy T. “Just left a right algae patch in the dunny.”

“TMI, May,” Ricky chuckled.

“Fuck me, I could eat a horse and chase the jockey,” said May. She bit a carrot then kissed her man. “Where did my dinky-di cobber get to last night?”

“Slept in a park like an ’obo,” said Ricky.

“You what? Which park?”

“It was near Bethnal Green station.”

“Vicky Park?” said May. “How the fuck you end up there?”

“I caught the wrong bus.”

“Which fucking bus?” said Ricky. “There’s the 133 but that only goes to Monument.”

“Maybe I caught two buses.”

“Maybe I caught two buses…” Ricky shook his head. “God almighty, you must have been blasted.”

“Leave off the lad, he’s new in town,” said Karl.

“I don’t fuck with night buses,” said May. “Midnight’s Uber o’clock.”

“May, take a niff of this,” said Ricky, offering the bottle of stock. “You reckon it’s okay for the chilli?”

She put it to her nose – “Nah, too chickeny” – then had a sip – “Not bad though” – another sip – “Salty” – and another – “Salty’s good” – knocking it back like one of last night’s pints – “Salty’s what I need.” She gave him a chickeny kiss and asked, “Where’d we lose you?”

“No idea.”

“Were you with us when we went to York’s?” said Karl.

“York’s!” said Ricky. “Fucking carnage. This one tried it with a complete scud.”

“She was not.”

“Look at this, Bry, and tell me that ain’t a scud.” Ricky held up his phone: a picture of a bleery Karl and an elated-looking girl.

“She looks nice.”

“Thank you,” said Karl.

“Nice?” May snatched the phone. “Didn’t know skinny bitches were your type, Bry.”

“She’s not a skinny bitch,” said Karl.

“That is a skinny bitch,” said May.

“Bet you didn’t even get a tug,” said Ricky.

“Wasn’t on my A game.”

“You was on your KFC game,” said Ricky, slapping Karl’s belly.

“You seeing her again?” he asked.

“Said she was on Tinder and if it was meant to be I would find her. I’ve been swiping like a bastard ever since.”

“Tinder finger and wanker’s wrist. Give it up, mate.” Ricky cracked open a tinny. “Hair of the dog?”

“Fuck no, I’ll vom,” said May.

“Do you good.”

“Go on then.”

They had beers and chopped the veg, slowly, but that was okay. All that was required of this day was recovery, with a chilli at the end.

Sharing a room with strangers had nightmare-potential but, as advertised, Ricky and Karl were ‘chilled-out’ and it was easy to fall in with their friends. Nights were birthdays of Darryls, Kates, Jakes and Trents. An expat mix who all seemed to have slept or lived together at some point – they shared beds as easily as Netflix passwords. Which sort of is how he sort of ended up seeing May.

She belched.

She was so coarse and uninhibited. One of the boys. But with a body that was all-woman. But strong and large, like a man’s.

“You watching the match on Wednesday, Karl?”

“Pete’s having his thing at the Albert.”

“What thing?”

“His 33rd.”

“33 on a Wednesday,” said Ricky. “Fuck off.”

“He’s putting two hundred behind the bar.”

“Last five minutes.”

“Better than a dog in the buff,” said May. “And they’ll have the match on at the Albert. You coming, Bry?”

“Can’t Wednesday, I’m at the theatre.”

“Lardy,” said Ricky.

“Didn’t know you went to theatre,” said May.

“It’s a school trip.”

“How’s that going?” said Karl.

“Fine.”

“Enfield, right?”

“Arse end of nowhere,” said Ricky.

Arse end, indeed.

Enfield was so far from home, it demanded Sexy Apps to break the journey. There had been liaisons at a few stops along the route. Bush Hill Park, Bruce Grove, Rectory Road. Felt good to be amassing a sexual map of London.

“You know what the greatest theatre is?” said May. “The Wallabies at the Olympic Stadium.”

“Your boy from Games of Thrones is in a play at the moment,” he said.

“Yeah, Jon Snow,” said Karl. “I saw an ad for that, we should go.”

“A Thrones play, I would pay to see,” said Ricky. “How’d you like the latest ep, May?”

“Fucked.”

“Want to watch it again while this simmers?”

“Love to!”

They retired to the bedroom.

Such is the world we live in, when he moved in he figured a ‘demibed’ was a thing: Ricky and Karl were sub-letting the gap between their beds. They had fitted a single futon in there.

But it was cosy – him and May in their futon, her leg draped over him, Ricky and Karl on either side – as they drank beers and watched tits and dragons play out on the wall.


TWO


Small talk, chat, conversation. Call it what you will. It can be a nightmare. But next time you’re struggling, follow these tips, and you are sure to enjoy improved chatflow.

Words of Leigh Lainey, host of the web series, ‘Life, As a Matter of Fact’. He thought her very learned. Wanting improved chatflow so bad, he watched her tutorial on small talk numerous times.

Because, honestly, he never figured it out. He had his looks, sure, but looks can only get you so far. He sought desperately to become a more socialised human being. This meant being a good conversationalist.

All the way from Enfield to the National Theatre – over an hour’s bad chatflow – he struggled with a woman called Mrs Bolton. She had a first name but he’d forgotten it. They had only just met.

“How are you finding it with us?” she asked. What was it Leigh said?

Keep it ‘up’

So instead of, “Excruciatingly boring,” (what he really thought) he answered, “It’s good.”

“Not such a bad school, is it?” said Mrs Bolton.

Answer a question with a question

“Have you worked there long?”

“Thirty next September.”

Aghast! A lifetime of teaching AT THE SAME SCHOOL was his nightmare. But it was there, in Mrs Bolton’s face and hair and clothes, that battle-worn look teachers get after too long in the job. Again he told himelf: I must stop teaching.

His job at Enfield was as a teaching assistant but prior to this he had a proper teaching placement. Where no effort was made with colleagues. They were so dull, he feared their dullness might infect him if he engaged in Small Talk. The only colleague he liked was a biology teacher, called Mark. But when, after six years, he left that school, there came the realisation he would be neither missed nor remembered. He had touched no one. In London, then, he would flourish, not exist. He must make more effort, be more open. Hence, theatre trips.

They found their seats.

It was big inside, with amphitheatre-style seating. People pretty, dressed up. He liked it. There should have been countless disruptive and loathsome youths with them but a parent complained that the content of the play was unsuitable and the headmaster pulled the plug. His reasoning: “I have to pick my battles.” As it was too late to return the tickets, Mrs Bolton decided she was going to the show regardless, and invited the teaching assistant along.

There, in the middle of their own private row, an opportunity to apply another Leighism:

Banter

Humour lightens the mood, she taught. It makes conversation memorable, which is vital if you’re on a date.

“This is sort of like a date,” he said.

Mrs Bolton frowned. She picked over her Evening Standard and, into its pages, said, “A blind date gone wrong.”

Mind the gaps

There is nothing is worse than silence. Count in your head: if you reach three, that’s too much. Fill gaps in conversation with anything. Anything is better than silence.

He made a high-pitched trumpet sound.

Mrs Bolton looked at him like he was insane and a few people turned around. But Leigh was right: a bolt of chatflow gold struck, as he was inspired to ask the perfectly sensible question: “Have you seen this play before?”

“I don’t think I have.” She put the newspaper down. “I’ve seen a few Marlowe plays but never Edward II, oddly enough. Do you get to the theatre much?”

“I did when I was younger,” he replied. “Do you?”

“Not as much as I’d like,” Mrs Bolton said. “My husband isn’t too well so most evenings I’m with him.”

Imagining Mrs Bolton with her unwell husband every evening silenced him. She resumed her Evening Standard. COST OF HOUSING DELAYS STARTING A FAMILY it said. She sighed. “Do you have kids?”

“Oh no.”

Oh no. There’s a man who knows his mind.”

“You?”

“Two boys, grown up. Hardly see them,” she said. “I hope you’re kind to your parents?”

Father: deceased.

Mother: estranged.

Keep it ‘up’

“I try.”

“I do wonder, especially working at a school, why we keep having children. I suppose it’s that babies are so lovely. They trick you into loving them unconditionally. After that, they’re mostly just angry. Mine are angry at me, the economy and global warming, in that order.”

“The thought of having a family has never really appealed.”

“I was the same but it changed when I met Peter. Is there a special someone in your life? Do tell me to mind my business, by the way.”

“I have just started seeing someone.”

“Would they not have liked to join?”

“She’s watching the rugby.”

“Doesn’t it seem there’s more rugby than ever? I don’t know what it is. I reckon that’s why we voted Leave. All these cups and medals, too many bloody flags.”

The lights dimmed and he was glad: Brexit talk got him down.

There appeared a projection of the Queen’s face.

Cutting to a picture of George VI to Edward VIII to George V, all the way back to Edward II. Who was then on stage, wearing a long, golden train, kneeling to be crowned.

The king is dead, long live the king!” an actor called out on the stage.

At half-time, an old one from the row in front announced: “A mess! An absolute mess of ideas!”

Mrs Bolton smiled. “Liking it?”

“A lot.”

“Good. Me too,” she said. “Would you excuse me a moment? I just want to make a call home.”

Left him on his VIP row.

The play was great fun. He reminisced a moment in the first half when THREE men kissed AT THE SAME TIME. A three-way kiss. Never had one. Felt so inexperienced. Though he wasn’t sure three mouths would do it for him (too confusing) what did turn him on…

Three penises. Their heads meet. Sliding, rubbing. Growing hard. Bouncy-ball hard. Slipping side to side. Earth, live and neutral. Taking turns to grip the mass. Pushing their heads until

PPushing their heads until pop

PPushing their heads until pop pop

PPushing their heads until pop pop pop

PPushing their heads until pop pop pop ejaculate shoots and coats each penis as they pump and it mixes and—

A woman.

Walking towards him.

Tall.

J’adore tall women.

He was a qualified French teacher who adopted the language (of love) when his emotions were heightened. She heightened his every emotion.

“Are these seats free?”

Looking to her. Wants to speak. Every intention of constructing a reply. But all he does is stare.

Mind the gaps

She wears a jacket over a T-shirt with the words DRAMATIC SOCIETY on it.

“Oh, hello there,” said Mrs Bolton, returning.

“Hi, I was asking if these seats are free?”

“Yes, all free.”

Behind she who rendered him speechless, were two other women. “Popular show,” said one with blue-tipped hair.

“Do you mind if we sit here? We just arrived.”

“You’re not cutting in at the interval, are you?” said Mrs Bolton. In her voice a lacing of teacherly admonishment.

“Afraid so.”

“Very good,” said Mrs Bolton.

“We are members of a theatre group. This is Valerie and Ruth, and I’m Luisa.”

Luisa.

Were e’er three syllables more sweet-sounding?

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Margaret and this is Tim,” said Mrs Bolton. Margaret Margaret Margaret, he repeated in his head. “Take as many seats as you like. We were supposed to be with a group from our school but the trip got cancelled.”

Luisa asked why and Margaret told the story and they chatted, natural, easy chat that would have made Leigh Lainey proud and he knew he had to speak: speak now or else he could very easily look like Mrs Bolton’s mute son.

“Do you get to many shows?” said Margaret.

“Anything you want to know about second halves, ask us,” said Valerie.

“A girl in our group turned me on to it,” said Luisa. “She works at a couple theatres and got us in to see the second half of Hamlet at the Barbican.

“With Benedict Cumberbatch?” said Margaret.

“Sherlock,” he said.

“Yes, Tim, that’s right, Sherlock Holmes,” said Margaret.

YES, TIM, THAT’S RIGHT, SHERLOCK HOLMES!

I’d blown it!—he thought. Screwed the pooch!

He didn’t even like Sherlock. What was wrong with him? He had no chat, no moves. He had no game. Forlorn conclusion: if it wasn’t a Sexy App, he was powerless.

The blue-haired lady scowled.

“That’s a hot ticket. Maybe I should join you,” said Margaret.

“You’d be very welcome,” said Luisa. “We’re preparing our own Hamlet.”

“Ambitious,” said Margaret.

“It’s still in development.”

In development.” Valerie laughed. “Her two favourite words.”

“Valerie doesn’t like my methods.”

“You take forever and who has forever?” said Valerie.

“I do feel it important with Shakespeare to make your own interpretation,” said Margaret.

“To find your own voice, precisely,” said Luisa.

“I have a voice!” said Valerie.

He wished he did: that he could show Luisa he was more, much more, than a pretty face.

Luisa. I would fall in love with you on a bus. You are the reason I came to London. The kind of woman found only in this city.

Valerie had stopped the chatflow.

1 – 2 – 3…

“Are you looking for actors?”

That was him! The King of Chat! He said that!

“There are no men,” announced Valerie.

“That’s great,” said Margaret, treacherously. “I’ve seen more than enough Shakespeares that are men men men.”

“I completely agree but I hadn’t planned it like this,” said Luisa.

“We scare men away,” said Valerie.

“It doesn’t take much to scare men,” said Ruth, still scowling, scarily.

“Would you like to join— Sorry, what was your name?”

“Tim.”

“Do you act, Tim?”

My whole life is an act.

“I did a bit at school and at uni.” And like so many joys, it just seemed to fall away, for no real reason.

“Who could he play?” asked Luisa.

“Make him a lady,” said Valerie.

“There is something of the Rosencrantz about Tim,” said Margaret.

“I’m Rosencrantz,” said Ruth. “And Guildenstern.”

“Horatio?” said Luisa.

“Too much of a sap,” said Margaret.

“What about Laertes?”

“That could be good, Tim. You get to have a duel.”

“And you, Margaret?”

“I haven’t the time.”

“Please,” said Luisa. “I like you, Margaret. Come next Tuesday. See what you think.”

The lights dimmed. In the second half, a man was killed by a sword up his bum but he didn’t care. Why should he? He was in love.


THREE


A roll-on deodorant was the first thing he ever put up his bum. It got stuck. You know what terrified him? Father finding him with it stuck there.

In the midst of sexual encounters, he often thought of his parents. Stood at the end of the bed, father shaking his head, mother weeping.

Dermot O’Leary, a father figure of sorts, loomed over the demibed. In suit and tie, he looked authoritative and, arguably, a little disappointed at the sight of May pushing her fingers up his bum.

How did we get here?

Flashback: the night previous.

Met a man who lived alone, nice place in Hackney. Said he could spend the night, “If you like, it’s up to you. Netflix and Chill? I know you’re supposed to say that before, but if you fancy, that’s fine.” And he tried, really he did. But as soon as the laptop opened and Netflix loaded – in its red and black – that old anxiety returned. No. No, he would not watch Stranger Things – not with a cock he barely knew inches away. Men were good for a shag and nothing else.

Left, frantic. Must have looked a maniac, but this guy should not have tried ensnare him in a boxset-and-cuddles fiction…

Raced across London to find May in whichever Friday-night boozer she was in and pint after pint until she came back to his.

The morning after. Afternoon actually.

They shared a hangover and takeaway pizza in the demibed. Ricky and Karl headed out to watch the rugby but May wasn’t up to it – “Let’s have a quiet one,” she said. “I’m tuckered.”

Her laptop was soon opened, plugged to the projector and… Couldn’t believe his eyes.

The X Factor.

But first an advert for cat food.

Desultory thoughts…

Is this an affair? A game? Are May and I just filling time?

Their first time was drunken, clothed sex after a night out. Ricky and Karl were in the room. It just seemed the thing to do, to formalise her sleeping over. Since then they’d had a handful of nights, five or six, but the doubts had begun.

The X Factor.

Dermot was still there and the lights still flashed.

He hadn’t watched it since the days – correction: halcyon days – of One Direction. God, they were beautiful back then. Beautiful, summer-faced boys.

When was that happier, fresher age?

It was the year also of Rebecca Ferguson. He loved her too. The way she sang, eyes cast down, shy and uncertain, but that voice – its power matched only by its sadness.

Don’t be my downfall ♫ sang she who was dumped WHILE PREGNANT.

Why are men such shits?

Often dreamed of being with Rebecca Ferguson, rescuing her from loneliness and scrub men.

May was no Rebecca Ferguson. She was tough. Still, her body – all thighs and hips – did it for him. The way she ate pizza, hanging the slice over her mouth so that it drooped between her teeth. Such a turn-on.

Though she could eat pizza, would she ever be able to unpick the web of his mental unwellbeing?

I am so emotionally complex.

Sister Sledge perform ‘We Are Family’.

Are they contestants this year?

Nicole Scherzinger on her feet, dancing, clapping.

Then a large group dressed white like angels.

All we need is hope ♫ a boy sings.

“Look at the bum fluff,” Mays says. “Men should either go full bush or shave. What about her? Do you think my hair would look nice like that?” She points her slice to a woman whose hair is long and thick except for a shaved chunk on the side. “I like it but worry it can look dykeish. What do you reckon?”

“Uh-huh,” he grunts, wondering: is this a choir or are some of them backing singers?

The image buffers.

Despair, misery.

He closes his eyes and visualises hot banging.

It’s Saturday. Grindr will be abuzz. He has a new Sexy App. Hornet. Similar to Grindr but it allows users to change locations. Can therefore trawl the whole of London, and beyond, in search of instant telly-free sex.

Do his erotic imaginings alter reality?

May’s laptop freezes.

“Fuck.”

She hammers the keyboard but it’s no use. The projector is stuck on a shot of Dermot. How well he’s aged—he is thinking, when Mays asks, “You ever been fisted?”

“No.”

“Ever fisted someone?”

“No.”

“You break my heart.”

She crawls to the end of the demibed and reaches inside her bag. Look to her ass: it has suddenly taken on new meaning.

She returns – holding a bottle of baby oil. She squirts oil into her palms. Just seeing her rub them together makes him hard.

“On your knees.”

He does as he is told.

She wipes her hand between the cheeks, softly, then pushes harder on the pleasure point. Takes penis and massages, not too rigorously, as she rubs his anus.

A finger is inserted.

“You like that?”

And another.

“You like it up the arse?”

And another.

“Bet you do. Bet you wish I had a giant cock, don’t you?”

May with a giant cock – a dream!

At four digits, resistance.

May withdraws. A gasp.

May is no sensualist. Her objectives in sex are clear: penetration and orgasm. Whenever a man can’t provide the latter, or if his efforts plateau, she’ll shove him off and finish herself.

Her face between his cheeks. Her tongue works that resistant muscle. As her tongue pushes in, it feels so good that he wishes it bigger, wider, big like a horse’s.

Four digits now easily enter, followed by a thumb which prises just that extra – eyes rolling – surpassing pleasure into a realm where ecstasy, pain, insanity merge – she is in – “Now you’re mine.”

Feel he might im/explode. Can’t take any more but more is all he wants. Her fingers rub the prostate, pulsing jizz from his penis, yet without orgasm. He wants to come but he wants to stay right there, forever suspended.

She leans over and breathes, “You do me.”

“More, just a little more, please.”

“I ain’t moving, cobber. You do me an’ we form an anal circle.”

Divinity!.

Manoeuvre to see her arse. She has a lovely arse. Wide, round and white. Bums, when they’ve spring, weight as well as buoyancy, are such objets précieux.

Reach inside May’s most valuable asset—

“Gently! For fuck’s sake, gently! That’s better. That’s good. Oh fuck…”

A sucking sensation as he is engulfed. Passing that barrier, it is as if it no longer is his hand. Cannot believe how tight it is – like a noose pulling about his wrist.

Buzz buzz.

Someone at the door.

Buzz buzz.

“Ignore it,” moans May.

She rubs her clit. Her ass tightens.

“Come with me!”

Buzz buzz.

Rubs his penis with his free hand but his wrist hurts. Squeezed too tight, bent out of shape. Grimace. She pushes further. Forms a fist. His hand inside her spasms. Sends her into tremors.

Buzz buzz.

“Aagh!”

May’s a cry of orgasm, his agony.

Buzz buzz.

Crack.

The roll-on deodorant was eventually removed before father got home from work. He died not knowing his son did any bum stuff. That incident, however, frightened him. He was deterred from putting anything up there until, tidying his bedroom one day, he found a toy drum-kit which had a stick with a lovely rounded end. That did the trick. He was off, off on a course that led me here.

May writhed, pale and transported, in the throes of extended orgasm. Finally she slid out of him and said, “You alright? You look pale as a sheet.”

“My wrist…”

“Alright, cry baby, get out of my arse.”

“I can’t move,” he whimpered.

“You better or I’ll shit it out.”

Eyes shut, practically gurning, he nearly passed out as he removed myself, millimetre by agonised millimetre.

“It looks fucked,” heard her say. “You need to get that checked out.”

Through eyes heavy with tears, he could only make out a purple and swollen shape.


FOUR


Sent on his way, after a night in A&E, arm in a cast – yes, like a twelve-year-old – he follows exit signs, trying to witness as little hospital as possible, when a voice says, “Pretty Boy.”

An oldish lady: “You don’t remember me, do you?” She is sat a chair, that’s just there, with two other chairs, against a wall in a corridor. “We met at the theatre. But you only had eyes for the Italian.”

Italian?—he is thinking—Mon amour is mio amore?

“Oh hello…”

“Valerie.”

Yes, Valerie – the woman who had been antagonistic to his love. She’d been dressed up at the theatre. Here she looks as people do in hospitals: tired, sad.

“How are you, Valerie?”

“Sit with me and I’ll tell you.” He stutters – trying to figure an excuse but she says, “You can’t refuse a dying woman.”

A dying woman. Can you imagine?

He’s not good at reality, and his wrist has just been fractured BY AN ARSE, and there’s some grass upon his person, and all he wants is to roll a great meditative joint.

But he’s a good guy, a nice guy, so he sits and she says, “I’m not dying. No matter what you hear. But I’ve been here all morning so talk to me. Not that you seemed much of a talker the other night. Did she get you tongue-tied?”

Him some more stuttering.

“You like her?”

“She seemed nice,” he manages.

“She is nice. It’s a pity she’s such a terrible director. She only wants to talk and I want to act and move and sing and get this show out there. Now what have you been doing?” She points to the arm-cast. “Skateboarding? What is the name of those wheels the boys are floating on?”

“Self-balancing scooters,” he said, ruefully. Ruefully, for these were a source of constant scandal at the previous school he worked at. He had endured countless minutes of meetings determining the school’s self-balancing-scooter policy.

“I always pray they fall but they never do.”

“I did this working out.”

“Working out to impress the Italian?”

Stutter.

“Well, Pretty Boy, you ask me how I am and, truthfully, not great. There’s a blockage in my heart. A blockage in the heart, I ask you. Why must every illness be so heavy with meaning?”

On Valerie’s knee was a rolled up copy of an ASDA catalogue. That, and the blockage in her heart, and the crumbling corridor, and the chairs – chairs for waiting to be summoned or noticed or moved to a place where hearts could unblocked – and the exhausted faces of everyone that passed, and the cleaner mopping the floor, together, all of this, moved him to tears.

“The boy is crying!” she says to the cleaner. “Stop that!” hitting him with the catalogue.

“I’m sorry, it’s just—” he weeps. “I’m sorry this has happened to you.”

“Don’t be sorry. This is nothing. I have been cursed by finagling men, vindictive authorities and a God to whom, though my faith is unshaking, it cannot be denied has put a curse on me. Curse is not strong enough. Cancers and lupus and eczemas.” (Feels nauseous, just the names of diseases made him sick.) “And polyps. Polyps took away a voice that could summon standing ovations like that.” She clicks her fingers. “Simply Red supported me! Look at him, clueless.” To the cleaner: “No idea who Simply Red are.”

“Sacré bleu!”

An outrageous claim. Insult him but question never his knowledge of pop culture. Simply Red had in fact committed one of his ‘unforgivables’: announce a farewell tour, only to return, five minutes later. Should be ashamed. There should be a contract outlawing fake farewells. This is why he forgave One Direction their ‘hiatus’. Though a hiatus lacked clarity and resolution, the lads never sold a fake-farewell ticket – and no fan shed a fake-farewell tear, for that matter.

Holding back the years ♫ Valerie sang, loudly. The hospital was so noisy and chaotic that a lady belting out Simply Red was just fine. “He said he’d take us on tour when they went to America. Never did. Was I surprised? No. Because I never trusted a white man with dreadlocks in my life.”

This said gazing deep into his soul – as if she knew, that yes, yes he had had dreadlocks! (It was a rites of passage, during his first year at uni. There was no photographic evidence.)

“My body has failed me. It sets me back. My greatest enemy is my body but it is the only one I’ve got and I’m 57 and still here, still speaking to clueless men, so I must be doing something right. Countless wars have been waged against me and these wars have set me back, stalled my career, required years of rehabilitation and I am always ready for the fight.” She sang a new tune ♫ Lord, this time you sent me a mountain ♫ waving the ASDA catalogue over her head. “Yes you did and you do and each time I climb. I climb to the top. That’s where I ought to be. And touch wood—” knocking his head “—this blockage is nothing. When people see me on stage they’ll know. Hamlet, Shakespeare. If you’re going to do something, do the best. Correct?”

“Sure.”

Sure! It was all ‘sure’ and ‘nice’ from him. She made him feel so timid, so bland. He despaired at his boringness.

“What about you? Are you joining us?”

“Sure.”

“To see the Italian or to steal my limelight?”

“I’ve just moved to London so it will be nice to meet new people and have a hobby.”

“Hobby! The Italian will love you. She calls it am-dram. There is nothing am-dram about me. I’m no amateur. Who would be? Would you?”

“I suppose.”

“Don’t suppose! Labels stick. I’ve seen enough bad actors, bad singers and bad dancers call themselves professional. Call yourself an actor. What else are you? Except smitten by the Italian.”

“I wouldn’t say smitten.”

“Then what? Lovestruck, infatuated?”

“I don’t want it to get weird, so please don’t say anything.”

“It has to get weird,” said Valerie. “Close your eyes. I’m serious. Close your eyes. Picture her.”

That hair of dark brown, her curly fringe—he could see it all—and round button of a nose, light brown and freckled. An Italian nose.

“Picture yourself kissing the Italian. Can you see it?”

“Yes!”

“Hold that picture in your head. Visualisation is key.”

Those curls of black hair tickling my forehead before our lip touch and—

“Is that jizzum on your trouser?”

He opened his eyes. Jizzum it definitely was but he said, “No, it’s pain-relief gel.” Perfectly credible.

Later he scratched at the jizzum on the bus.

Top deck as it was quieter there. Hospital buses depressed him. He didn’t want to look at the other passengers and imagine their stories, their pain.

Rolled a joint. The wrist slowed him. This would be a right bastard. Though it was tragic this happened, he did enjoy fisting.

And surely all anuses aren’t as strong as May’s? Or do I have weak wrists? Are weak wrists a symptom of a disease? An STI?

Rolled a second joint – would need extra pain relief this arvo – and stored them both in a tin kept in his breast pocket. His Drug Tin.

Back home, Ricky and Karl were computering on their beds. (Their job, something to do with the Internet.) They looked thrilled – “Well?” said Ricky, closing his MacBook. He knew he would have to tell all.

“Yes, it’s true, May’s sphincter fractured my wrist. Happy?”

“What?” said Ricky.

“May’s sphincter fractured your wrist?” said Karl.

“Stick an asterisk on that,” said Ricky. “First things first, why didn’t you tell us you were married?”

A catastrophic need to shit. To puke. Wrist throbs like fuck.

“May’s sphincter?” says Karl. “Ricky, look, his arm’s in a cast.”

Ricky: “Your wife came to visit.”

Run to the bathroom.

Karl knocks. “Tell us about May’s sphincter.”

Puke.

Buzz buzz.

“She’s back,” says Ricky.

Saliva and puke dribbling down his chin, he leaves the bathroom to check the monitor at the door. It’s true. There she in, in grainy black and white.


FIVE


Shame! Shame! And a cliché: the cheating husband escaping out the back door.

Out the back door. Into a garden. Upturned chairs around a rusty barbeque. Wading through knee-high grass. Startles, and is startled by, two foxes. They scarper. Left face-to-entrails with a dead cat. Its torso bloody and open – the foxes have devoured its heart!

As I devoured my wife’s…

Her name was Stef. He made his promises – to love and to honour, in sickness and in health – “I do” to all of the above.

At the end of the garden, he turns. Knowing he’ll see Ricky and Karl. Their faces at the window on the second floor. He can go back – course he can – go back to his wife, tell all and face his mistakes.

He waves.

Goodbye, Karl and Ricky, my chilled-out Aussies, you were good pals to a newb in London but it’s time.

He climbs the fence. Easier said than done. Ricky and Karl’s last sight of the man they knew only as ‘Bry’ is him dangling from a fence as he scrambles to pull one leg over. Eventually he hoists himself to the other side.

Where it is all plastic.

A wall of yellow. Like the garden is filled by bouncy castle. As he squeezes along – barely room for him and his bag – he realises it’s a polytunnel. Can hear voices inside.

Garden wall.

Climbs the pattern of gaps in the brickwork. As he descends the bag falls forward. Collapse face first. Look up. A child. “Pugsley, come here!” Touches the side of his face: blood. “Get away from my son!” A dad scoops up the child. “I’m calling the police!” The dad backs into the house with his son. Straight on his phone. See a side path and run.

On the street. Not safe. Stef will be patrolling.

How had she found me?

He’d just got back when she buzzed. Must have been waiting. Watched her husband arrive at his new house, living his new secret life. Been shocked at the sight of him – bedraggled with his wrist in plaster – eventually finding her nerve to go to the house and—

Buzz buzz.

She didn’t stop and Karl kept asking, “What are you doing?” – buzz buzz – while he packed a bag – “Bry, stop. You can’t just leave. What are you doing? This is madness.”

Madness gripped him then and leads him now…

Off the street and onto the common. A strap on his bag has snapped. He stoops to carry it on one shoulder. He limps. Hurt his ankle in the fall.

I deserve pain!—he tells himself—For what I did to you, Stef, Stef, my beautiful wife.

To her he used to sing that old Maroon 5 song ‘She Will Be Loved’ knowing full well it was true—She will be loved, but not by I

It’s not just Stef he’s abandoned, now there’s May.

May, my bone-crushing behemoth, you just might have been the one that could save me.

Men and women.

Men with women issues.

Thanks, dad! No thanks, mother!

Mother abandoned him.

Did the dirty on his father and went to live with another man ON THE ISLE OF MAN.

The Isle of Man thus forever cast as an island of kinky swingers. He had visited as a child. One of those holidays that leave pictures which just don’t budge. Remember a water wheel, giant red thing, and their flag, a circle of three legs, either running or kicking.

Wheels, circles.

“Mother!”

Was he avenging his father by punishing these vicarious mothers?

“No more women!” cried as he passed a group of hot-bod tan gays playing frisbee. “No more women!”

Turn back, turn back—whispers some conscience. Clutching a broken wrist to a broken heart, a wail: “I am incapable of love!” All he was good for was speedy fucks with anonymous men. Cheers, mate. Nice one. You can find your way out, right? “No more women!”

Picnickers turn. And parents. Parents with their children in the park. He hates them. Years of teaching filled him with disgust for breeders. Every dad on the common has a beard. Salt-and-pepper beards. London parents are a million years old, the shitheads.

Are they tracking me?

If Pugsley’s dad has called the police, they’ll be on their way and these normcore bastards will grass, no doubt: “That way, officer!”

Dives into a dark patch of trees and bushes.

“Mother!”

I’ve been holding on to too much.

How else had she found you?

I must let go of the past.

You need do more than delete your Facebook to disappear completely these days.

There must be no hope of her ever finding me again.

If you’re to really do this, you must go all in and that means erasing everything.

I must burn my passport.

It suddenly seems so vital that he do it this instant.

Scrambling through bushes. Not bushes that nurture or shelter – these are the plant equivalent of homeless spikes. Force through until he reaches a narrow clearing next to a wall. A train rumbles above. Tip his bag.

Where’s my passport?

Hastly-packed. Just a few clothes and keepsakes.

There you are, you red bastard.

“What’s all this?” asks a friendly-faced gent with a yellowy-white beard. He is walking along the siding with two overflowing IKEA bags that he puts on the ground.

“Have you got a lighter?”

“If you can give me a smoke, I’m sure I can find a light on me somewhere.”

Opening the Drug Tin: “I have a joint.”

“A fair trade, young man, very fair.”

Gives him one of the joints, which he lights.

“Mmm, lovely day for it,” the gent says, blowing the glowing end. “There you are,” as he hands over the lighter.

Hold it under the pages of my passport—burn, you bastard, burn!—finally it catches and the gent laughs, “That’s it, fuck them! Fuck ID! You know you exist. I can see it. You do right, son, you do right.” They cackle at those symbolic flames. He drops the passport to the mud, still laughing at the flames. A stream of water falls on the fire. He look up and sees that the gent is pissing on his passport. “Have it!” shouts the gent, swinging a chunky penis so its current covers the flames without extinguishing them. He gets his penis out and pisses too.

Why not, eh? Why the bloody hell not?


SIX


Hamlet – Luisa

Hortatio – ???

Polonius – ???

Ophelia – Tolani

Laertes – ???

Claudius – Valerie

Gertrude – Irena

Rosencrantz / Guildenstern – Ruth

Ghost / Gravedigger – ???

Fortinbras – ???

Non-essential characters (courtiers, servants, soldiers) had been removed. That left five parts – five people Luisa had to find and maintain. But somehow…it was a struggle. What was the problem? Why was it so hard to keep actors? In London? Was Luisa not professional enough? Was that it? Should she not be doing a play in the first place, let alone Shakespeare? Shakespeare! What if she wasn’t up to this?

Before these doubts could spiral deeper, the bus reached her stop. She stood to get off and spotted that guy out the window. Him from the National. He was leaning on a wall, smoking. I’ve invited another crazoe, Luisa thought, as she clocked the massive bag on his back and that one of his arms was in a cast. Half-tempted to stay on the bus to avoid him, but no: as the English say, so often, beggars can’t be choosers.

“Hello, Tim,” she called out, as she stepped off the bus. He turned and smiled brightly. “Are you waiting for me?”

“No. No. Not at all. No. I was early.”

“Can I have a drag?” He gave her the rollie. “I knew you’d come. You have an honest face. Good for actors.” She handed back the cigarette and noticed he held a school edition of Hamlet. “I see you’ve come prepared.”

“Learning my lines.”

“Who knows what your lines will be?”

“Am I not playing Laertes?”

“Maybe.” She turned to cross the street. “Come on, I’ll show you platForum.”


A library-café-college-council-hybrid on the Isle of Dogs, platForum had in its midst a black-box theatre, where they would eventually perform.

Luisa took Tim to the room where they rehearsed. The windows were frosted. There were posters on the wall for foster parents, HIV-testing and dementia care.

“Do you live around here?” she asked as she unstacked chairs.

“No.”

“Pity. I’m supposed to be doing this with Poplar residents.”

Luisa, experienced in the gaming of the gatekeepers of art, knew you just had to get the gig. Whether a commission or show, once you’d got the money, do what you want. That was the good thing about austerity: no one really paid attention anymore. Possibly the Council expected some am-dram performance at a summer fair. Luisa called it am-dram herself, so as not to scare people away. But her ambitions were for something (she wasn’t sure exactly what) bigger. She chose Hamlet because it was about warring families, a subject with which she was familiar, and for the past six weeks her Dramatic Society had met every Tuesday.

They arranged a circle of chairs and sat. The room was lit by bright fluorescents. These allowed Luisa to have a better look at Tim. His face was cute. He looked like a chubby-cheek innocent. But it was grazed on one side. Then there was the arm in a cast. These were literal warning signs that screamed KEEP YOUR DISTANCE, LUISA.

“Is Margaret coming?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not working at her school anymore.”

“Fired?”

“It was agency work,” he said. “I’m taking a break from teaching.”

“I don’t blame you. I started the training once but hated it. Margaret said you’d acted before?”

“I did at school and quite a lot at uni.”

“Any Shakespeare?”

Macbeth.”

“You liked it, I can tell,” said Luisa, spotting a smile. “This is my first. I’ve never done a play per se. I’ve done theatre but not like this. Proper, you know, with a story. It’s difficult. For one thing, my cast keep disappearing. That’s why I’m picking up strays like you.”

“Do you always wear that?”

“What?”

“The T-shirt. You had it on when we met.”

“Only on club nights.”

She’d found it in a charity shop on Holloway Road. Immediately took it as a sign.

Luisa had been…retired…from art. After years of making stuff – performances, videos, events – she was broke, broken, she had that early-30s crisis where you tell yourself if it was going to happen then it would have happened by now.

So she stopped.

But got bored. Or hungry. Unsatisfied.

She knew she wanted to get back to making art but didn’t know how. It had to be a return that wasn’t trivial. Something big. But she was nobody. How could she make a giant comeback?

Which is when, on the same days as she got the T-shirt, Luisa saw a call-out for “Poplar theatre-makers” to celebrate the 400th birthday of Shakespeare, she knew it was the one.

Shakespeare – no fooling around there.


MARGARET. Tim, your face. What happened?

TIM. I had an accident.

MARGARET. What kind of accident?

TIM. Working out. Extreme fitness.

IRENA. What does that mean?

LUISA. Yes, what does that mean?

TIM. What do you mean?

IRENA. What is extreme fitness?

LUISA. You know, iron-man cunts.

VALERIE. Luisa, no!

LUISA (to VALERIE). I apologise. (To TIM) How exactly did this happen?

TIM. There was a log—

IRENA. —what is a log?

MARGARET. A part of a tree.

VALERIE. Did it fall on you?

TIM. No. It’s a strength exercise.

LUISA. Oh God, I can picture it. You and a gang of iron-man…enthusiasts…lifting logs.

TIM. I was pulling it.

IRENA. I don’t understand.

TIM. I was pulling a log and it snapped.

LUISA. So strong he breaks trees. A perfect Laertes.

IRENA.That rhymes!

LUISA. So strong he breaks trees, a perfect Laertes.

VALERIE. Why is he playing a man?

LUISA. But is he?

VALERIE. All you talk about is gender fluidity.

LUISA. That isn’t about the gender of the actor. Or even the gender of the character. It is about the gender the actor chooses to play their role.

VALERIE. His role is a man.

IRENA. Who is Laertes?

MARGARET. Ophelia’s brother.

VALERIE. A man!

LUISA. But are they?

VALERIE (howling).

TOLANI. It is worth bearing in mind that when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, there were no female actors. Women weren’t allowed to act, so men played women and this influenced the plays he wrote. Shakespeare was totally the biggest gender bender of them all. There are female characters pretending to be men falling in love with women.

Enter RUTH, hobbling.

IRENA. What is the matter, Ruth?

RUTH. Don’t ask.

RUTH sits and lifts one leg onto a chair.

RUTH. I forgot my script! This fucking day.

LUISA. Ruth, baby, I have scripts.

LUISA takes script over to Ruth and gives her a back rub.

LUISA. I want our show to represent the world as it really is. Right now gender binaries are crumbling.

VALERIE. Binaries! Fifty years I lived. Never heard someone say binaries once. Now not a day goes by without your lot saying boundaries.

LUISA. Your lot? Who are my lot?

VALERIE. I’ll tell you they are when you tell me what binaries means.

LUISA. It means—

VALERIE. —he is a man playing a man and you are a woman pulling it out of her arse.

LUISA. Valerie!

VALERIE. Arse is no see-you-next-Tuesday—

MARGARET. —let’s crack on, shall we? How about we have a read through?

LUISA. Margaret, I’d like to keep in the idea exercises.

MARGARET. It would be nice to get an idea of where you’re all at.

VALERIE. This is it. Talk talk talk.

LUISA. Precisely. So we can make our own translation of the text.

VALERIE. I don’t need anyone translating. I understand every word.

LUISA. I’m looking for experiences that connect us to the play. We need to understand what it means for us. For the people in this room.

VALERIE. It’s different people in the room every week.

IRENA. Maybe if we had a date for the show.

LUISA. I’m not going to create an artificial deadline.

VALERIE. Then create a real one! Otherwise it will stay like this. All pants and no action.

RUTH. I’m finding the conflict in this room very toxic.

VALERIE. Conflict? There’s no conflict.

RUTH. It feels really hateful.

LUISA. These are just idea exercises.

MARGARET. Maybe we cool off by reading through our lines?


Luisa succumbed – despite it being her view that reading lines was the easy part. If they understood their characters, that would determine the direction. Everyone had different editions of the play and Luisa had torn inessential pages from hers. But eventually a scene, with speaking parts for everyone, was chosen. Margaret read Polonius. Valerie had fun as Claudius. She played it full-villain. Tim was good too. Better at acting than real life.


SEVEN


Two Tuesdays later, Little Tim held back at the end of rehearsal. “I know this sounds weird—” classic smooth opener “—and do say no if it’s in any way not convenient but would it be possible to stay over at your place just for one night?”

Just for one night…

That secret, coded language of a bang. Its signals, vibrations. Luisa could sense it all. Still, she couldn’t let him off that easily.

“Why are men so needy?”

“I’m sorry,” flashing Luisa the sad eyes. “I shouldn’t have asked.” He had a very expressive face did Tim. Effective in diverting from other aspects of his appearance that were, unarguably, grubby.

“I’m serious. Tell me. I’d love to know how men became so helpless?” He just stared, dumbly. “Are you homeless?”

“Not at all!” he said, not at all convincingly. “Where I was staying tonight has sort of become unavailable.” Sad eyes + puppy smile. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Just for one night?”

“I promise,” he said.

The bus arrived.

“Okay, sad sack, follow me. We’re going to Hendon.”


London buses take forever – fucking forever to Hendon. The tube was faster, of course, but, like pre-rolled cigarettes, Luisa’s days of affording that were behind her. Though she did value the pause buses afforded. Time to daydream or write to Rudi.

The boyfriend.

Luisa deliberated whether to mention him – To be, or not to be? – did they need that chat?

There was a tattoo on his upper arm. Luisa lifted the sleeve of his T-shirt to have a proper look. It looked like a prison tattoo and said LIVE WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. The writing was rough, thin and the skin around it was red, peeling.

“Is that fresh?”

“Yeah. I met— Someone at a party did it. I was drunk and, I can’t lie, it was messy.”

“Alcohol thins your blood.”

“We couldn’t see my arm for the blood. But I’m really pleased.”

“No regrets?”

“No regrets.”

“Where’s it from?”

He sang a song Luisa didn’t know, then told her, “One Direction.”

“Fuck off,” she laughed. A party tattoo of a One Direction lyric – either genius or tragic.

“Where have you been living?”

“Sort of couch-surfing. I’m looking for somewhere more permanent.”

“Any leads?”

“I am supposed to give someone in Morden a call but my phone’s dead.”

“Phone’s dead, homeless, and you’re looking for a job, no? It’s too much, poor baby, too much.”

They were front seat, top deck. The bus was going through Limehouse. Outside were giant towers. Giant towers of glass looming over subsiding terraces. They stopped at a red, next to a pub where Luisa used to run a night. Cheap Habit. A performance night – cabaret, art, music – that morphed into a party as the night progressed. She loved that night. She thought about sharing this with Tim but he wouldn’t get it. It was a long time ago. She hadn’t been inside there for years. It was now some shit gastropub.

The lights changed. The bus moved.

Luisa had been riding buses in London since she was 18. She was 36 now. As much of her life here as in Italy. Still, she wasn’t sure London was home. Less sure post-Brexit. But these corners had gathered memories, some happy, most just stories she wasn’t sure added up to much.


“Do you need to shit?”

“What?”

“You heard.” Searching for keys in her bag, she explained, “If you need to shit, you need to go next door. Our toilet’s broken so no shitting. But you can piss in the sink.”

Luisa lived in a three-storey terrace with four other couples. One couple had a mother permanently ‘visiting’. Not ideal but temporary: Luisa would find a new place as soon as the play was under way.

Her room was on the second floor. Inside, she switched on the light, a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. Immediately Tim looked at a painting leaning under the window: “Is that a dragon’s tail?” It showed an owl inside a car and the car had a green tail.

“It’s Ruth’s.” Ruth, who bounced through short leases and sub-lets, had paintings “on loan” across London. “Take a seat,” she said, tugging a mountain of clothes to reveal a chair. “I wasn’t expecting guests so I won’t apologise for the mess. Though this isn’t all mine. The drums are Rudi’s.”

She checked for flickers in his expression at the mention of the name. Eventually: “Rudi?”

“My boyfriend.”

“Oh,” picking up a veena, “do you live together?”

“He’s travelling.” Luisa lit a few candles and switched the light off. “Pick some music.” There were the leaning towers of CDs next to his chair. He pulled one out and passed it to Luisa. Machina by the Smashing Pumpkins. “Nice,” she said. “You know them?”

“Someone I worked with went to see them a couple years ago.”

Luisa put the CD in the player. She skipped to track four, ‘Stand Inside Your Love’. Maybe it was her love for this song or the innate romance of candles but she felt the prospect of banging was not completely extinguished.

Who wouldn’t be the one you love? ♫ Luisa sang along, as she rolled a cigarette. “You want?” She threw him the bag of tobacco. “I can’t quit. Any vices. It is probably time to let go but what do you replace them with?”

“Do you want a little extra vice for that?” He opened a little tin.

“I knew you were good for something.”

She mixed in some weed, rolled the paper, then went in search of a lighter. She had a kitchen lighter – bigger, harder to lose – somewhere in the room.

Recast as child and mystic sage ♫ That was a line she had always loved. A mystic sage. Perfect.

“I like this,” he said.

“I wouldn’t have thought a One Direction fan would be into them.”

“They’re a rock band too.”

She emerged from under the bed with the lighter. She lit up and said, “You’re kidding, right?”

“I never joke about One Direction.” He took the lighter and lit his joint. “I fell for them the first time I saw them on the X Factor. Later, when I was teaching, you couldn’t not hear them. Their songs were everywhere and were too good. That’s the thing about pop, when it gets you, you’re powerless.”

“Haven’t they broken up?”

“They’re calling it a hiatus.”

“What the fuck? That’s what Rudi said when he went travelling: Think of it more as a hiatus.

“Vague, isn’t it?”

“There’s no closure. Not that I want closure. Just to know where I stand.”

“I think the boys thought they were being kinder to the fans but, in the long-run, the uncertainty is cruel.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s like this.” Tim held up his joint. “People will tell you it’s bad for you but it’s not.”

Footsteps and voices outside the room.

“Housemates?”

Luisa nodded. “Housemates are one of those things you grow out of fast. I moved here when Rudi went travelling a second time.”

“Where is he?”

“Bhutan, the last I heard.”

“Is he coming back soon?”

“When he can face the first world. That’s what he said. That he was tired of the first world.” She smiled at this. “And what about your boys? When will they come back?”

“I give it five years. It will be nice when they return but it won’t be the same.”

“It never is. I wish bands that break up would never come back.”

“Oh my God, I totally agree.”

“Like I wish the Pumpkins had never got back together.”

“Who has ever really broken up?”

“It’s shit when bands go shit. You always think your bands will be different. Stay amazing forever. And when they go shit, people say stuff like, They’re better than ever, and what they’re really saying is I am better than ever, I am not falling to pieces.”

Luisa took a long drag as she listened to the Smashing Pumpkins. The guitars sounded so good on this record. Rough but hi-fi. The songs were sad in a way that’s cool – a grand and epic sadness that’s possible when you’re young. When you’re older, sad is just sad.

“Have you a place to stay tomorrow?”

“I’ll find somewhere.”

“Where are you looking? What’s your budget?”

“Anywhere. And as cheap possible.”

“Have you tried the warehouses?”

“Are they squats?”

“Are you a baby or a granddad.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re clueless.”

“I haven’t been in London long!”

“Warehouses are mostly legit. They have studios and live-work spaces. My friend – friend of a friend, really – he runs a place. He gets so many freeloaders, I’m sure he’ll welcome someone who pays rent. I can give you his number.” She felt for her phone. “I take it you’re fine not having privacy or heating or running water?”

“That bad?”

“I exaggerate,” she said, again under the bed, as she searched for the phone. “There just aren’t so many home comforts. But who am I to talk?”

“It’s nice here. I like it.”

“No one likes Hendon. I’ve lived everywhere in London. Including Orpington. Eighteen years I never met a single person from Hendon. It’s where you end up when life doesn’t work out.” Luisa didn’t find her phone but stayed on the floor to take a few drags. “Me and Rudi had such a nice place. A flat in Archway. Close to Hampstead Heath. I loved it. When he went on his travels the first time, I just about covered the rent. I figured we’d be okay when he got back. But when the hiatus extended, that was that. I let our flat go and moved here. Back to the housemates life.”

“I’m happy with people around me.”

“Why? People are awful.”

“I never really did the housemates thing. Soon after I started at uni, I moved in with my…she became my wife.”

“You’re married?”

“Separated.”

“You are damaged goods,” said Luisa, before ducking under the bed again. “Can you ring it?”

“My phone’s dead.”

“Fuck, I don’t like this anymore. I’m stoned and I need to sleep.”

Luisa flopped on the bed. It was unmade and blended in the sheets were clothes, make-up, plates. She looked at Tim. He was a mess, she was a mess, the room was a mess. Everything was shit. “Tell me if you need to shit.” She laughed and rolled over. The bus ride had tired her out.


EIGHT


She shouldn’t make a habit of sleeping at her mum’s, Brón knew. It’s just, when she was over there, and it was after tea, after Eastenders, after a couple glasses of wine, the thought of going back to her place – her place in an actual warehouse – when there was an actual room with an actual bed upstairs, this was just about unbearable.

She regretted it though the morning after. Always did. Brón was an adult and couldn’t keep sleeping in her old bedroom. “Stay for breakfast,” her mum said. But she pushed myself out the house and caught the Overground at Stratford. A long journey, which gave her time to catch up on business. Deleting Steve’s tweets – sample: the mouth is the asshole of your face – from the band’s account. There was a message from Manager James about a tour supporting Man Plus Bargaining. Only four dates. Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol, Crewe. Crewe? But Brón hadn’t heard of Man Plus Bargaining. She listened to their Soundcloud. They were okay. Ish. Touring was good but supporting…Brón felt they should be beyond that by now.

She got off Willesden Central and walked to the Hythe Industrial Estate. Home. Inhabitants called it a warehouse but actually it used to be a garage. As soon as Brón was inside, she saw Eb.

“Hey, Brón, this is— Sorry, what was your name?”

“Rob,” said an old man carrying a backpack.

“Rob’s moving in.”

“Impossible,” Brón said. “We already have a Rob. It will lead to confusion. You’ll have to pick a new name.”

“Brón’s a funny girl,” Eb said. “She’s in a hip band you might have heard of. Dandolo? No?” Eb then did this thing Brón HATED and sang one of their songs ♫ No surprises, options or alibis ♫ before, “They have their studio here so you’ll be singing along soon enough.”

Eb called himself ‘Property Manager’. He looked after the place for some owner living in Spain. Eb was short for Eberardo. Brón for Brónach. There were a few abbreviations around the warehouse – to avoid painful pronunciations in this multicultural utopia.

Brón tried slipping past the two old timers, when Eb said, “Wait, Brón, could you do me a solid and show Rob around? I need to run.” Before Brón had chance to decline he was asking, “Did you say you have the rent, Rob?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Two weeks.”

Classic Eb. His one sphere of efficiency was rent collector. Friday was rent day. Miss one and he’d change the locks on your studio. No messing. Most of the time, he was a dope, but with money he was mean.

Eb grabbed a handful of notes from Other Rob and pissed off, leaving Brón with this guy who, respectfully, looked like a drunk that hadn’t slept in a week. Brón also thought it weird, someone his age – forties? – living in a place like this.

“Did Eb tell you where you’re living?”

“He mentioned a nut?”

“The nook. Follow me.”


The warehouse was very fire hazardy. It had been converted to studios – wooden boxes connected through a maze of passageways, made narrow by piled- up paintings and monitors, amps and boxes. There was art stuff, life stuff. None of it ever moved, got used or cleared. Stuff just accumulated. At the centre was a clearing, the ‘communal’ area, and there stood a tower.

“Your new home.”

It was four iron tables on top of each other. Each table was a little smaller than the one below. At the top was…how to describe it…a globe…made from hundreds of pieces of wood.

“What do you think?”

Long pause. “I don’t get it.”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”

Brón climbed a ladder welded to the side. She slapped one of the table-tops. “Plenty storage space.” At the top, there was an opening in the side of the globe. It curved around, like a shell. Other Rob followed as Brón crawled through and stretched out on a rug. “It’s deceptively large.”

“Is it art?”

“Art repurposed as housing.”

It was by an artist who used to work there. He’d moved out ages ago but paid Eb for storage. Eb, noticing that visitors would often sleep in the nook, tried his luck hiring it out and, this being London, found tenants easy. Brón had slept there herself. With a few duvets and pillows, it felt safe, cocoonlike. Like being cradled in a giant’s palm.

Brón’s thinking was that we must widen our concept of housing. Just as people could live in warehouses, we could make homes of nooks, pods, hammocks – anything to break the demand for traditional housing that sustained poverty and reinforced oppressive power structures.

A pulsing noise made Other Rob jump.

“That’s Dodd. Zombie House. That’s what they call it. There’s alledgedly a whole Zombie House scene. But that sounds bullshit to me.”

It was a doomy drone. Like stretched-out, slowed-down dance music.

Brón picked at the scrunched-up orange rug. “You might want a new rug. This one’s looking pretty funky.”

“This isn’t what I imagined,” Other Rob said.

“At least it’s cheap.”

“You’re right. That’s what matters.”

“The main thing you need to know is you don’t live here. Understand?” He stared, gormlessly. “This is important. No one lives here. Wankers from the Council are always coming around. Never let anyone in. You can fuck it for us all, so anyone asks if you live here, what do you say?”

“No, it’s a studio.”

“What kind of art do you make?”

“Sculpture.”

“Good.” Brón crawled backwards. “Come over for a cup of tea later if you fancy,” she said, leaving Rob alone in his new home.


Brón’s studio was a rehearsal room with two cupboards. One cupboard was her bedroom, the other Rob’s. Official Rob. Brón played drums to get him out of bed. He emerged, wearing only boxers and socks. Rob was skinny. Strange, because he drank a lot and the only food he ate came out of Styrofoam. He had a body that would turn some people on but Brón thought too…sinewy.

“Good morning. There’s tea.”

He rubbed his eyes and poured a cup. He took a sip and grimaced. Rob didn’t like Brón’s tea. He was a builder’s tea kind of guy.

“You ready?”

“Always.”

He picked up a guitar and the rest of the day they made noise. Brón and Rob were in Dandolo with Steve but they had another band, After Birth, just the two of them. Because side-projects are shit, Brón never called After Birth a side project. It was Dandolo without Steve – therefore, without hassle. Dandolo were doing okay, the debut album was recorded and ready to put out, they drew good crowds. But Manager James wouldn’t let them play too often in London. It wasn’t like they were on the road the whole time, so what was Brón supposed to do? She needed shows. If she didn’t perform she didn’t feel alive. Shit jobs, shit homes, shit politics, shit relationships – all that was bearable as long as she knew that in a few days there would be a stage somewhere with her screaming on it. So they formed After Birth and, if Brón was being honest, she liked it more. As Dandolo got closer to being something proper there were more men – booking agents, label bosses, venue managers – and these men were turds. Turds who thought themselves Wizard Gods just because they made a few quid off music in the Internet Age. And Steve. The bigger Dandolo got, the worse he became. It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll behaviour. He was just a dick. They used a drum machine in After Birth, as well as a small kit on a few songs where Brón would play drums. Crowds love that – when you put your guitar down mid-song to go play drums – they lose their shit.

That night, after Brón and Rob had finished, she went to make dinner. It was important to Brón that even though the warehouse lacked, privacy, warmth, peace, she would look after herself and eat well. She made a risotto. She went to the communal area. She could hear crying. It was coming from the nook.

“Other Rob?” Brón called up. “Are you okay?”