Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This time, Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
The Guardian of Travellers
With bags under their arms and bags on their backs and bags under their eyes, the travellers come to him. They stumble, trudge and tumble towards the sign over his head which reads, in letters way wider than his shoulders: Victoria Coach Station — WELCOME - INFORMATION.
Where is Victoria train station is it long long way from coach where is Underground? How do I find Queen Hotel? Which Metro line for M&M shop? Where Kew Garden? Where Angus Steak House? Where is passport? Where is JOB where is my brother I tell my brother meet me Victoria Coach Station where is LOVE?
If he is waiting for someone else to return from their break so he can go on his and his was meant to start 10 minutes ago, if he is bursting for the loo or a custard cream or a Nescafe Gold, or a quick scroll of his phone; if he is desperate for a few minutes alone, just so he can finally shake that last argument with his girlfriend out of his head; if a fortnight of night shifts and afternoon shifts and some other dark thing he can’t name, are weighing him down; if the security guys have just dragged away four drunk lads who kept calling him gaaaay and spitting at his face, he will shrug. He will stare, his face no more communicative than the dirty tiled floors, and point at the rack of leaflets by the taxi rank.
If, however, his belly is warm with custard creams and Nescafe Gold, he will smile (but not too wide due to the brown splodges on his teeth which are growing every day). He may, if his cup of Nescafe was particularly strong, stand up. Left, left, left right, he’ll say. When the travellers’ faces knot with despair and worry, when the tears well in their eyes, he lays his hands flat on the chin-high desk that divides him from them and makes the noise his mother used to make when he would seize up with terror at imaginary monsters.
I know these streets like the back of my hand. Pull your case towards Costa, turn right, cross towards the white boards with the photos of the buildings they haven’t built yet on them and carry on across the grass. Breathe. Say hi to the pigeons — but not too loudly: they may get excited and crap on you. If they do, don’t worry; your hotel is the big silver building glinting at you from the other side of the topless buses on the other side of the road.
With every traveller comes an opportunity to rediscover the city — never mind if some, sometimes all, of the details are what most people would consider to be made up. Ride the 44 bus to the second-to-last stop and you will find the job of a lifetime. Don’t miss the cronuts in Giuseppe’s Deli, West Brompton Road. The gargoyles on St Anthony’s Parish Church in Camberwell are deliciously gruesome, and the pub round the corner does a decent roast, too. There are elephants in Trafalgar Square tonight — one night only! Tomorrow, they’re getting the Megabus up to Grimsby. There is a fortune teller in an unnamed patch of grass way up the Caledonian Road. He will squint at you for a couple of minutes then for free — but you have to ask. There are raves in every second basement in Mitcham. There are stars painted onto the toilet floor in the dentists at Kennington. Some would say he is mean; others would say he is mad. He would say he is just pulling out the city that is already there — the real city, just below its asphalt surface. (Although he can admit he has done more than the statutory maximum number of night shifts this month).
The lost travellers nod and blink, unable to absorb more than a few familiar words — ‘and’ ‘if’ ‘road’. And yet they smile; they loosen their grips on their front-to-back-packs. 'Thank you', they say, even if they’re too tired to nod their heads.
As he watches them melt into the 3am floodlit darkness, he knows he has given them at least one good thing to write/text/email/Skype home about. If he can be the one good thing in a fellow human being’s long, bad, difficult, day, he is glad.
But this is not how he spends the night shift, oh no; he spends most of it watching the creatures who waft through the automatic doors, so skinny and scrappy and hollow-eyed, that he often fails to see them until they are folded into some corner, limbs as tight as origami. The security guards don’t see them either, or if they do, they don’t move them on; these people have lost too much muscle and fat and money and bags on whatever kind of journey it is that they’ve been on: you can’t be a threat to anyone if you’re not really here. He wishes they would come over and ask him. Ask him anything. Ask him why. Ask him how. Ask him if he can make it better. They never do, though. They never do.
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.
We're also now looking for short stories both for and by children.
Previously in this series
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- 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.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- 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.