Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
The Soho Nocturnes
It’s a funny thing, but just now, walking by that cul-de-sac, it all came rushing back. It was that dried up piss reek. Took me straight back.
I’m not sure what was wrong with me. The great unrest had taken possession. I was living in this strange nowhere land between Rotherhithe and Greenwich and would sleep during the day. I’d leave my flat whenever darkness descended, walk along the Thames, by City Hall, the Globe, along the South Bank and cross the Hungerford Bridge.
I was alone, broke, and broken. I hadn’t been here long, maybe six months. I’d nothing to do, was just recovering from my injuries. I probably had a mixture of homesickness and overwhelming desire to be part of this new world. To be let in.
But London was a concrete dream. I just didn’t know what to do. I once ran, as fast as I could, into a wall at King’s Cross, like Harry Potter. Hence the scar. I know it’s not funny. So I walked, night after night, away from myself. Walking made everything go a little bit soft. Open. So I could enter.
I walked and walked and walked the maze until I was vertiginous, weak. I walked combinations of streets: Golden Square to Beak Street to Lexington to Broadwick and back via Brewer Street. I made a special effort to walk dead ends, of which Soho has many: Dufour’s Place, Wardour Mews, Duck Lane, Sutton Row, Smith’s Court. My feet had to touch every paving stone: it felt important. I did the Italian walk, the journo crawl, the horny trot along Old Compton and Walker’s Court with its sex shops, peep shows and ‘models’. The walks seemed codes that promised to unlock the secrets of this city. I always ended up in Golden Square, where I felt free, a temporary relief from the dark labyrinths I’d just traversed.
There are probably doctors out there who propose a physiological explanation for the effects of walking on mood — something to do with endorphins hitting particular parts of the brain perhaps. I’m not so sure. But it calmed me down. I owned my body again.
The summer was trying to cling on to itself, about to be trampled over by the windy wetness of autumn; the sun just couldn’t be bothered.
No other place in London changes appearance so radically at night. During the day Soho lies out for the count holding its breath, in denial of what’s to come: another battering of sights, shouts, smells. The aromatic alleys, the waft of cheap overperfumed country girls, Bar Italia’s espresso smell, as if by magic, everywhere – and a hint of Peking duck that had the guts to make its way across Shaftesbury Avenue. Everyone high on something, guided by pheromones that made sure you ended up in the sack, whether you like it or not.
I thought of those walks as my Soho nocturnes. Drifting and dreaming. I was alone but when I floated through the Soho night taken up by the endless tides of people on their way to some unknown destiny, looking for a bar or restaurant, or coming out of some theatre, it all made sense. There is nothing that comes close to the feeling of the company of people, like a birthday party, when the cacophony of voices carries you in the arms of mankind. When unconditional fun and love illuminate the world. Anyway, I was less alone. I imagined that together we were a gigantic, unstoppable wave washing Soho clean of its sins.
Of course no one in the crowd actually spoke to me. The only ones who’d talk to me were the down-and-outs. Dave’d lost two fingers to frost bite but still produced roll-ups faster than anyone I knew. He'd always say, Aiste, what a fucking gorgeous name. I said, I like it too. Thank God. Together we would watch the people party-going.
Sometimes we’d stake out the clubs. He’d mock the self-important big-shot fuss when tossers left the Groucho. Dave wondered if your bowels would empty themselves faster if you’d hang yourself with a three hundred pound silk scarf. The only place that was spared our vitriol was Black’s. Someday, I said to Dave, I’ll take you there.
I met Angela deep into a Saturday night, Sunday morning really. She found me bathing in first light. She was from Peckham Rye, ran away when she was sixteen. The weather had eaten away face and hands. Ange said, ‘So-Ho’ was an ancient hunting cry, when the Duke of Monmouth and his noblemen chased hares, foxes, deer. No much changed I guess. The hunt still on. Lots of so-so hos. We knew it wasn’t funny. She’d been through a lot, much more than me.
We used to drift together, Ange and me. Sometimes we’d lock arms. It’d made us feel stronger, against the looking. All the looking, cutting you down, the men. She’d ask, Why did they do that to you, back then? I shrugged, said, We were too rich, powerful, no one likes that, we lost our title. Why always that punishment for women, she asked. Let’s leave it, I said, let’s walk.
I wonder where she is now. Dave died. Stabbed. Probably shot his mouth off one time too many. I never made it to Black’s, anyway.
It was on the last Thursday of October when it happened. It was around one; pubs and clubs were coughing up punters like dirty phlegm. I staggered through the crowds on Berwick Street. A sudden gust of wind, warm like breath, like a lover’s whisper. London went soft and open. The city enveloped me, and spoke. Aiste, she said, you no longer need to.
And there I was.
That was the end of my Soho nocturnes. At first, I missed my night walking, but soon I was at ease, and reconciled myself to being a member of the living who every day conspired in the creation of the soft dream of London.
We’re still after your stories based on London at Night, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.