Lionel on the 24
There is an evening gloom in late summer as I hop on the 24 bus and nearly do myself an injury as its jolts off in fits and starts. I am buffeted around; going upstairs is like riding a twitchy stallion who is deeply affronted that someone is on its back. I get to the top deck and plonk myself down on the back seat. Ah yes! some quiet reflection for the next 30 minutes or so as the No 24 ekes its way towards North London. The traffic inches along towards Cambridge Circus, this is a city designed for horse and carts, not giant red double deckers. Being plonked at the very back like this makes me feel like one of Chaucer’s Pilgrims; the one who always rode at the back because he wanted to watch the actions of all the other pilgrims ahead. Who was that? The ‘Reeve’, I think he was called the Reeve. But on top of this bus there is only one other person ahead, sitting at the very front. Hold on, hold on, isn’t that. It is. I haltingly make my way up the aisle.
“Lionel? Hello, how are you.” “Oh, hello there.” Not a good start I hate being called ‘there’. He looks decidedly more unkempt than when I last some him some years back. The clothes are quite shabby, even threadbare. He pats the seat beside him by way of invitation. “Grab a pew.” “Sure, not disturbing you?” “No, no, glad of the company.” I sit down thinking he must have seen me standing there waiting for the bus, wasn’t exactly seeking me out, I ask, “Still playing tennis?” “No, afraid not, hip got a bit gippy.” ”Sorry to hear that.” Silence. “Right, right...still watching the cricket?” “Oh yes, Lords is my Valhalla. Speaking of which...what’s the latest from Australia; stumps drawn? They’ve been watering the pitch I hear. Woeful, pitiful, wretched performance from our chaps, I blame the selection committee; sitting on the veranda sipping their Pims. There is a little more to it than that, believe me. If I had my way I would have those selectors drawn across the pitch by the scruff of their bollocks.” Silence.
“Right...right...so how are things, you know, en general?” He affects a cockney accent. “Oh mustn’t grumble,” which makes me think of a song by the Small Faces. “Still in Crouch End, are you?” “Well no, I was moved, it’s still Crouch End well, a banlieue of Crouch End. I am just up from the Bus Depot; do you know it?” “Eh...no.” “Just go up the hill there, Piper’s Mount it’s called; then take a left till you pass the big sorting office for the Post Office. There’s a pedestrian crossing there and if you take a right you will come to some disused tennis courts, pass them and I’m just there.”
“Yes, I think I know where you mean.” The bus is stalled, you hear the engine being switched off.
“That’s an environmental advance isn’t it, switching the engine off?”
“Especially when you are faced with gridlock. See that fellow down there by the shoe shop, standing in the entrance of the shoe shop?”
I lean across
“That fellow, him.”
“Him, yes him... I know him, or else he is a spitting image of this fellow I knew in Gospel
Oaks.” “Oh right, right.” The bus moves on. “...a tree surgeon as he grandly used to call himself. The trees were blighted so he was around a lot in his harness. Interesting bloke, last time I saw him he was based in Romney Marshes, even affected an estuary accent to go with it. I don’t know if that was for effect, lots of travelling people in that part of Kent, or gens de voyages as I prefer to call them. Anyways, he was telling me last time I saw him, that he does a lot of his work now in the Shooters Hill area…trees are very blighted there. But it’s interesting, he was telling me, you know how people love to talk about themselves, he was telling me, before becoming a tree surgeon, he used to be singer, a lapsed opera singer he referred to himself as; had one of those high pitched, weasel voices. May have been a castrati, for all I know. But the strange thing about all this is, he was telling me, he originally comes from St. John’s Wood, you would never Adam and Eve it now, with the estuary accent. And of course that reminded me, of my old Mum. She used to live in St. John’s Wood…what's that place called where she used to take me; funny name, ‘Toni’s’, yeah ‘Toni's', where was it now?....there was a square called the Minorities, I think, oh yeah I remember it now it was in that Mews; oh yeah, Prudent’s Passage Mews’ the approach to it is up that winding road, Seething Wells Lane, do you know it?” “Eh...not sure I...” “Anyway my mother, she was such a mensch, every Saturday morning after schule she would take me to ‘Toni’s’ and she would say to me ‘sit yourself down there and stop being such a klutz’. She was such a mensch; ‘Park your tush down there, bubbla and go and get me a nice coffee and blintz,’ she would say. Did you ever meet my mother?” “No, no, I don’t think I did.” Silence. “Bit late now.” “You know something, looking at you now...you are the dead spit of a cousin of mine.” “Really?” “Two peas in a pod, you are a bit broader round the shoulders, and he is a touch more gaunt, well he was last time I saw him, but I’m splitting hairs. Really, nothing in it between you two. You are a dead ringer for him.” “Yes, eh, interesting the similarity in people.” “He’s an actor....where did I last see him in a play? I think it was the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green, or was it the Equity Theatre do you know that one, just off the Balls Pond Road. Still, that was years back.”
“Still go for a drink in the old local?”
“Naw, gave up drink, doctor’s orders, last drink was yonks ago. I remember the day because I had just put the ex-wife’s Shiatsu in kennels near Lavender Hill.”
“Because she was off to see her mother in Bournemouth, you see.”
“Oh, I see.”
We are on the Tottenham Court Road and the bus has stalled once again.
“That place there...”
“Sorry?” I lean across.
“Reminds me, I once, came out of a cinema like that in Crouch End; can you see it?”
“Anyway, I was about fifteen at the time. To come clean, your honour, I was bunking off school at the time. Anyway, thought I would take myself to the flicks. Anyways, afterwards, I don’t know, through a kind of incorrigible intuition, I thought I would do a shortcut down Feather Alley, you know where it backs on to the allotments that lead to Nightingale Lane. Anyway, just as I got past this pile of abandoned prams and this upturned mattress with the rusty springs popping out of it, these three kids appeared out of nowhere and demanded my money and my ‘Bomber’ jacket. I quietly informed them I had a Luger in my trousers pocket and would they like to see it? They said, yes, they would. So I told them to stand a few yards away by the fence, because the Luger was cocked. So they backed up a bit lively, you can imagine. Then I toed it out of there for all it was worth.”
“Did they chase after you?” “They tried to catch me but they couldn’t see me for dust. How were they to know I had represented Hackney in the 440 yards?.” Silence. “Right, right...and how is that. Living in the banlieue...” Shouldn’t have said that, “...as you call it?” “Well, apart from the neighbours...” “Tell me about neighbours,” I commiserate. “Oh I don’t know, a bit more of the old of grace from them would not go badly, yes a bit of the old je ne sais quoi, wouldn’t go amiss if you catch my drift?” “Have trouble with them all the time, then?” “Not always, sometimes there is kind of dance of empathy with them, you catch them prying at you through their net curtains, I gesture to them when this happens, an amused wry greeting, just to let them know, that I know, but I’m sure they still don’t know, that I know. Some people are sure that you know but they don’t know if you know or not.
“Right, yes quite.”
“Oh, in a way there is a fairly innocent kind of heroics to such people.”
“Sorry?” “Oh you know, getting on the 7.05 every morning for twenty years, suffering the vagaries of the Metropolitan line So I am not going to pour scorn on them, after all the laying into the steadiness of everyday life is a bit of straw target, isn’t it?” “Yes, I suppose...yes, I suppose it is.” “Yes, steadiness is an admirable thing; I mean, we can’t live our lives on whim, or vagaries can we, otherwise we would all be shooting people on capricious fancies, in that Camus way.” What the hell is he talking about now? “Oh right...” “Yes, just because the mild irritant of the sun getting in your eyes you pull the trigger. Don’t you find existentialism very French; in a word?” “In a word, yes, yes, I do...eh...rather, is a bit selfish I suppose.”
“What...is the trouble with the neighbours, dogs barking and things like that?” “Well their dog does whine a lot when they leave it to spend time at the pub the ‘Bucket of Blood’ or whatever it’s called. It is just that you never get any peace.” “That can’t be good.” “I will give you an instance. Last night, I had just settled in to my battered old deckchair, the one I bought on holiday in Frinton during that memorable summer, years back. Anyway I was just settling in to have a quiet gander at the old canopy...” “Sorry canopy?” “The sky, sky...I’ve lost the thread now...try not to interrupt...anyways... and they can see me in my postage stamp of a back yard, and there I am settling in to have a quiet gander at the old firmament then this rancorous clatter.” “What, they make noises on purpose?” “Yes, they would deny it of course but when they do that I just think, OK, this is their cards on the table stunt. Right, my old mates, we are in the land of no holds barred now; no Marquis of Queensbury required here. I tell you, my neighbours and me, we are implacable foes when they make a clatter like that.” “Indeed. Not surprising.” “And when they do it, I think what impudence...how vindictive, how...” ”Yes, I can imagine...must make you feel...” “... crimson with anger, I am apoplectic, flabbergasted that...incandescent...I am bowled over that people can behave in such a way.” “Why don’t you have a word with them?” “I do, shout up at them from the basement, they are on the ground floor.” “How do they react?” “Laugh in my face; say things like you would complain about the noise of our old Gran knitting.” “So, not much joy. Probably best to give them a wide berth.” “Honestly, your language. But in fairness I will admit that some of the noises they make are indeterminate, oblique. But overall their behaviour is just not equivocal. But I don’t complain directly to them now ...I prevaricate, deliberate about confronting them directly... but there are other methods which I employ.” “Oh really? So they are not...they are not really approachable...in the...in the normal run of things?” “Well, they have always been difficult, ever since I moved in there. Seem to be in a world of their own; always in a bit of a huff, every time you see them they seem to be out of sorts, if you catch my drift?” “I know the type, sullen.” “Yes, surly, brooding, you might say a bit too inner. One could have wished they would be a bit more...” “Forthcoming?” “Yes, you know, how can I put it? they could show a shade of, you know, benevolence, if they were just...just a bit...more bounteous; a mite of munificence wouldn’t go amiss, most people can manage that, even in the banlieue. But what do you do with people who appear not to have generosity of spirit, ‘L’enfer c’est les autres.’. you have to conclude.
“Indeed. So... so what do you think you will do about these neighbours?” “Well as I said there are other methods.” “You don’t want to do anything silly.” “No, no, wouldn’t dream of it,” he looks quite mischievous. We are crawling past Goodge Street Station “How is the work, still painting, your painting, selling any these days?” “Had an exhibition not so long ago...well a few years back now, passing Goodge Street station reminds me: L’esprit d’escalier, have you heard of that phrase?” “No. No, ‘fraid not.”
“Translates as the ‘wit of the staircase’…you know, those biting ripostes that you think of just seconds too late when you think of what you should have said.” “Happens to me all the time.” “Anyways on the way down the escalator at Goodge St Tube Station, or, maybe it was Warren Street, but that’s bye the bye, I suddenly thought of what I should have said to this cheeky young whelp of an art critic...after my exhibition... which I paid for it myself.”
Silence. His head drops.
“Did for me financially.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. What did...what did she say to you that upset you so much?” “Who?” “The young...the art critic.” “What didn’t she say; got it here ...” I watch as he fishes in his pocket and takes out a very battered looking wallet from which he extract a tattered looking newspaper cutting and starts reading as if off my heart. ‘‘Lionel’ as he self consciously signs all his works may believe he creates an atmosphere of hesitation and menace. However, in the eyes of this reviewer, his simultaneity of precision and vagueness, are no more than terse disguises for malicious intention.’ “Hmm, quite well written.” “One of those Oxbridge types. But audacious, wouldn’t you agree?” “Eh yes, yes.” “Then she asks me with notebook in hand,” ‘Can I ask you on last question, just for the piece. Where were you born?’
I replied, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘I would be very grateful if you did not lapse into gibberish.’ “I said, ‘My reply was not gibberish, it was strategy.’” “She came back with,” ‘You are being quite truculent, do you know that?’ ‘The way you have mauled my work, bloody right I am,’ I said.” “She then comes out with,” ‘...your inability to communicate just demonstrates to me a deliberate evasion of communication, and I must say...’ she came on all grand, ‘...in your departure from authenticity, like your work you display nothing but a dishevelled ordinariness.’ Cheeky young whelp. But that wasn’t all.” “Wasn’t it. What there’s more?” He reads from the cutting again.
“She said ‘there was portentousness to the work. Accused me of being ‘a composite of pure platitudes of displaying a weak-kneed surrender to tautology.’ I was about to reply, have the last word, but she cut me off. Cutting me off like that...speak to me like that; the temerity of it, the gall...the brass necked impudence; the effrontery...the...I haven’t painted since.”
“Oh, that is a great pity.”
“The bloody cheek of it! So I am going down the escalator and I suddenly think of just what would have put her in her place, L’esprit d’escalier, but no, the chance had gone. Something ineffably sad about that, when it is past the time when the verbal arrow could sting its victim...makes me fume.” “Bit hard to recover from that sort of...eh... critical onslaught.” “Oh well, you go away and stew in your own integrity and let them get on with it - in that stagnant pond of affluent bourgeois life. Did I say affluent?” “Eh...yes...I think you did.” “I meant effluent.” “Well, she was only one critic...I mean...to give up because of one critic.” “Ah well, I suppose it is best that way. I have always been an impassioned outsider as an artist, an obstinate nonconformist.” “Yes...eh yes, indeed.”
“ So, what are you going to do with the neighbours. Why don’t you call the Council?” “What! if you want to talk to someone who is clinically insane then talk to someone at the Council. They should be all sectioned. Anyways, as I was saying about employing other methods, a whispering isn’t less angry than a bellowing,” and with this he taps the side of his nose with two fingers in that let this go no further way. “So just between you and me, capiche?” “Yes, yes, what...yes, sworn to silence.” “I managed to get their phone number and have started calling them in the dead of night at 2am, it was about 3.15 last night.” “What...to well...obviously...wake them up?” “Well, after I have had an evening of their dog whining while they are off lording it in the saloon bar of the Barrel of Blood, why shouldn’t I?”
“So, eh... what do you say?” “I don’t say anything I just imitate their dog and its plaintive cries down the phone.” “Oh right...well, that’s quite a...step.” “Well life presents you with a choice of negotiations, doesn’t it? Life as I sees it these days is an endless battle for positions.” “What do they do...how do they respond when you call them?” “They swear like troopers.” “Do you swear back at them?” “I would never use obscene language in a business call. I keep my obscene language for the home, where it belongs.” “Glad you have still got your sense of humour.” “I wasn’t trying to be funny.”
After the verbal excesses we are into silence - the lacunae of everyday speech and the bloody bus is crawling along. I can’t bear it one moment longer.
“Well great, very nice to see you again.” “Oh, you getting off here?” “Yes, remembered I’ve got to do something.”
That night I talk to Fiona, “I am worried about him, I mean he was such a fine figure of a man. I used to play tennis with him. He has obviously fallen on difficult times; wouldn’t like him to do anything silly with the neighbours.”
“Look, I don’t want you going over there this time of night, it’s quite rough that area.”
“ I will be careful, I am just going to walk past the flats where he say he lives.”
“You be careful, do you hear?”
“Might not even go over there, just need to stretch my legs.”
Five minutes later I am I hunching my shoulders as I set out; the light is going out of the summer evenings. Fifteen minutes later I am in the banlieue. I walk along past some wrecked looking vehicles, the odd basement that is full of junk, an old refrigerator is discarded outside one house. On the first floor of a council block two women chat from opened doors each cradling an infant on their hip, both are visibly pregnant again.
On the corner ahead outside a Kebab place, a group of edgy young men in hoodies appear to be scanning the derelict buildings for any sign of movement. I sense them eyeing me as I walk past. You feel these are the young and wretched of the earth, with their inchoate collection of desires. But then you sense if there was a choice of them taking to the barricades or visiting Disneyland you just know what they would choose. I feel in my pocket for the £50 I have taken out of the cashpoint to give Lionel. I won’t tell Fiona even though I know she would approve, God Bless her.
Up ahead, a burger trailer with flat tyres on a godforsaken roundabout. Oh there! The tennis courts; the nets now broken and scraggly a discarded, rusting bathtub on the service line. My step is a bit more hesitant now, for I note all these houses are derelict, ready for demolition. Then, ahead of me, in this sea of dilapidation, I spot a single light in a basement. I approach stealthily and stop. There is a figure there, is it? It’s him! I scan around but there can’t be any neighbours here, these are all derelict. There are no neighbours! When I look down again he has come into full view and is looking directly up at me.
I hurry away.
(First published by Ether Books as A Pinteresque Man on the 24)