Povey watched white paint unfurl in chains along riveted steel shanks bordering the tracks. The Network South-East from Lee had been late again this morning and there had been no unoccupied seats. He’d stood hunched against the door, slow fire moving through his back, looking out at a colourless skyline as veils of rain hung motionless against the thin wash of buildings.
One word — KNOWN — endlessly repeated, blurred by broken obliques of moisture on the windows. The capital letters formed harsh angles which bracketed the soft middle ‘O’. He couldn’t decide whether it was the result of a brainless ego, or an attempt to impart something more significant. Whatever, he felt drawn to the uniformity of the letters as they dogged the train across Hungerford Bridge.
Only since leaving the centre of London in favour of commuting in from the limbo of its outer districts had Povey begun to appreciate the ingenuity of its engineers and construction workers. Any available space was filled in with new flats, shops, entertainment arcades. Staying with his uncle, in a grim conurbation on the South Circular, he yearned to be in the heart of the city once more, to feel its pulse through his feet. He was looking forward to viewing the flat that evening. It seemed to call at him from over the rooftops, across the miles, like a desperate request from a distant lover.
Povey walked the Strand to Aldwych where he turned left. He liked the rain, the way it cleansed the buildings and turned them into glittering spires and domes. He imagined the city’s detritus being washed into the Thames. The rats drowning, the pissy alleyways and door recesses polished. All those channels and creases scrubbed clean.
But not the graffiti. Somehow it clung, tenacious as tattoos. Even in this fresh, burnished light, the crude slogans and signatures looked vital and new.
At work, the feeling fell away from him, as if this office was somehow insulated against the banal miracles of the city. He discussed layouts with Lynn and blithely complimented every letters page and fashion spread she showed him. He wondered if his apathy shone through. Lynn was the editor of a ‘secret’ magazine project. She had contacted Povey via a chief sub-editor from the parent company. He had done some work for her last summer and even though it was interminably dull — subbing real-life tragedy stories offset by ‘humorous’ articles and tips to make household chores that much bearable — it paid well. He’d leapt at the chance of five weeks’ employment, an opportunity to be nestled in London’s centre, even though Lynn’s overtures to him on the phone prior to his first day were almost comical.
‘So can we book you until the end of March?’ she had said, having explained that this was all hush-hush and that he would need to sign a document guaranteeing his lips to be sealed.
‘Certainly,’ he had said, ‘what will I be doing?’
‘Can’t tell you,’ she had replied, ‘it’s a secret.’
It turned out the magazine was a downmarket version of their market leader. Called Chinwag, it was aimed at a teenage readership, hence the appearance of words such as ‘shag’ and ‘willy’ and ‘cum’. The problem pages were a lifesaver amid grim copy-proofing and fact-checking. MEN ONLY screamed the banner in 108pt Soupbone. My little man bends the wrong way… am I abnormal? And the Top Tips: Clean venetian blinds with L-shaped pieces of crusty bread.
They were based at the top of a building in Holborn, in an office big enough to host a game of five-a-side. Golf. Along with Jill and Lynn, there was Yvonne, on features and Sally and Fran designing the pages. Friday lunch times they nipped down to the Sun Tavern on Long Acre and talked about dreadful magazines they had worked on in the past. All the same as this one, save the name.
An hour or so into his work, Povey received a phone call from Sutton, his best friend. He was in the Smoke for a few days, visiting from the south-west, but he sounded strangely on edge and asked Povey if he could meet him that evening — he’d be in the pub from about three-thirty. By four o’clock, the skittish nature of Sutton’s call had infected him and, in a mild panic, he went to the toilet, affecting a pained look and rubbing his stomach. In the mirror, he was surprised to find that he did not look well. The colour had fled from his cheeks, giving him a greasy complexion. His eyes seemed to have sunk away from the flesh of their sockets: red filled in the gaps. He felt as though the real version of him hadn’t caught up yet, that he was just a ghost, a sliver of the real Clive Povey. The real Clive Povey was stuck on a train staring at the codes and tag-lines sprayed on the portals to the capital.
‘Lynn?’ he said, cracking his voice just right. Jill, the assistant editor looked up too, which was fine by Povey. He knew she liked him and the concern that darkened her face told him that he’d pitched this correctly, even though he was only partly acting. ‘I’m going to have to go home. Sorry. I feel dreadful.’
Lynn looked aggrieved that she was losing him, clearly of the opinion that freelances sold their souls when they agreed to work and had to sit at their desks even if they were to suffer an arterial bleed.
‘Okay,’ she sighed, finally. And then: ‘Hope you feel better, tomorrow’ with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Hardly reached her lips either.
Povey limped back to his workstation and closed the file he had been using before copying it back on to the server from his hard drive. The dummy lay-outs he returned to their trays.
‘See you tomorrow,’ he said. Sally looked at him acidly as if he had just stolen her plan for the day.
In the lift, Povey felt stitches of guilt about bunking off early and stared at the graffiti on the doors. He hadn’t taken his lunch hour, so that supported him in mitigation but didn’t stop him feeling like a school truant. They needed him; there was no need to worry about being sacked.
He seemed to descend too far, further than usual, but when the doors opened, there was the sliding glass entrance and beyond, Kingsway’s mad rush. Although it was barely half past four, the sky had blackened and the rain angling in over the forbidding roofs showed no sign of stopping. Bruised light loitered behind the thinnest junctions between clouds; the streetlamps were off and the cars on the road drove blind.
He plugged his ears with a pair of headphones and depressed the play button on his Walkman. A grim and epic loop of sound instantly drew something immanent from the deflated sky, the constant traffic. Holborn Tube was closed off; a huge scrum of commuters stood with their backs to him, staring bovinely at the concertina gates and the ticket barrier beyond. Two fire engines ticked over in the centre of Kingsway, lights flashing.
Povey made a series of turns into ever diminishing streets — High Holborn, Southampton Place, Bloomsbury Way, Bury Street, Little Russell Street, Streatham Street — until the traffic’s voice was toned down to an asthmatic gurgle. A crocodile of diners spilled out of Wagamama, thickening his sense of claustrophobia. Snazzy fucks in soft leather pants and white tee-shirts and linen jackets. Fifty pound haircuts. A woman fingering her pearl necklace while talking to some pin-striped goatee who made expansive gestures with his Nokia. Everyone seemed to be travelling somewhere and never arriving. He brushed past and ghosts followed: CKOne, Fahrenheit, Dolce & Gabbana. Stuff he recognised from the peel-off strips in his magazines.
He caught the Tube at Tottenham Court Road and travelled north, imagining his colleagues belittling him behind his back. His lack of spine. Such an insular man, a cold man. He bristled, imagining them, and jolted the arm of a woman reading a newspaper. She clucked her tongue and rattled the pages. He remembered acutely the embarrassment he’d known as a child when everyone’s attention had been reluctantly drawn to him. He pressed himself against the seat, reining in his claustrophobia as it tried to deal with their distance underground, the way the train was just big enough for the tunnel, the optimum exploitation of space.
At Kentish Town he surfaced, gulping air. At the Tube exit he watched the rain splinter the white and red exchange of car lights as people trundled home. A bus crawled by, its windows misted with condensation. Dark lumps filled every square of light. Each seat taken, every foot of Tarmac used, shoes secured pavement slabs as far as he could see.
The nest of lights on the underbelly of a jet shone through the barrier of cloud; through his feet he felt the chunter of trains worming north and south. By the time he crashed through the doors of the Academy Rooms, a hundred feet away, he was exhausted. It was as though there was no space for him to move. Every umbrella had wanted to do for his eyes; every briefcase clouted his knees.
He found Sutton squeezed on to a settee near the pool tables. He signalled: a pint. Povey bought drinks and moved unsteadily towards his friend, casting a glance at the pool tables where a woman was playing a leather clad boyfriend. Behind them, a huge screen formed a backdrop: footballers glistening under floodlights in a derby match.
‘Hello Frank,’ said Povey, ‘have a drink.’
Conversation tumbled around them. Povey perched on the edge of a stool that was being used as a footrest by a heavy piece of beef wearing sunglasses and combat fatigues. He heard the word ‘known’ used twice in quick succession by different people, and tried not to let his anxiety show.
The girl at the pool table pirouetted around her opponent, tipping him over with her thigh as he lined up his shot.
‘You sounded a little bit wired when you called me this morning,’ said Povey. ‘What’s up?’
Sutton flattened his lips together and shrugged. ‘I’m having a bad time of it, Clive. I needed to see someone I know. Someone who would look at me instead of through me. Jesus, one of those days I’ve had, when everyone tries to walk over you like you’re not there.’ He took a long swig of his pint. Povey wasn’t sure how many of the empty glasses arranged around him were his, but he bet it was a fair few.
‘Another thing,’ said his friend, staring blearily at the football match. ‘Perhaps the main thing. I tried to do a few things yesterday — simple things,’ he huffed what might have been sour laughter. ‘Sort myself a loan and find out why I wasn’t sent a voting form for the local by-election. Same response on both occasions. Didn’t know anything about me, couldn’t track down anything to do with my history. They were very apologetic but it sounded like they were talking to someone who wasn’t there. Who didn’t exist.’ Sutton leaned over and whispered the last three words conspiratorially.
‘Come on, Frank, you’re just having a shit day. I’ll send you an application form to join the club. You might have to hang on a while though, there’s a fuck of a long waiting list.’
Sutton was shaking his head now. ‘No, Clive,’ he slurred, ‘you are not yet in full possession of the facts. Today I opened the newspaper and found this bastard.’
He passed Povey a crumpled copy of that day’s Guardian. Sutton had ringed a section and Povey had to put his glass down before he poured it into his lap. Below the strapline Death Notices he read:
SUTTON, Frank Stanley died sadly on 31st March 19– aged 34. Fondly remembered by many friends and family. Beloved father of Gillian. Funeral at Broadclyst Parish Church, Exeter, 24th April, 2pm. Family, flowers.
‘My God, Frank. But this is a joke, surely?’
‘Yeah, I’m splitting my sides over it.’
‘This is awful,’ Povey said. ‘I’m really sorry. What are you going to do? I mean, you must go to the funeral, sort this out. Imagine their faces!’
Sutton seemed to have withdrawn from the animation of the crowd and Povey blinked to bring his edges back into focus. Too much smoke and heat. He watched the girl playing pool as she appraised the table. Standing over her shot, bouclée grip, her right breast collapsed around her cue like the slow unhinging of a snake’s jaws as it envelops a rabbit’s hip. She looked up at him through a dirty blonde fringe and took her tongue for a trip around the waxed O of her mouth. Flecks of white ringed her jumper sleeve.
‘Not sure if that’s a good idea, Clive,’ mused Frank. ‘I might turn up and spoil everyone’s day. But I suppose there are some advantages. If I don’t exist, I can’t be harmed can I?’
Povey smiled. ‘I suppose you’re right. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen though.’
‘Right.’ He drifted into his own thoughts and Povey had to reach out to steady him when it seemed he was about to lean back against a couple reading Time Out.
‘I don’t know how you stick it in this place, Clive, I really don’t. Everyone I see here looks pasty and frightened. They look like… you know those transfers we had as kids? You rubbed them with a pencil and they came off the tracing paper? Well it’s like that. People having their essence crushed out of them as they enter the capital so that all that remains are features, the husk.’
‘Yes, Frank,’ Povey smiled, patting his hand. ‘Have another drink, won’t you? I have to go and view a flat.’ Povey tried to affect nonchalance as he waved goodbye to his friend and forced his way into the teeming night but his hands were shaking. I know what you mean, he should have said. But he was worried that Frank’s left-field logic might insinuate itself. He felt vulnerable and unsupported. He didn’t like the drifting aspect to his life, the way he could sometimes believe he was a ghost trapped on the conditioning thermals of a dull prior existence, doomed to live every day as an exact replica of the one that went before. Commuting now took up so much of his time that his life seemed to be truncating. Every day was like standing on a succession of edges. His nerves were permanently tensed and shrieking: a slew of violins in a Bernard Herrmann score.
It was happening to everyone around him, this thing they labelled routine but which deserved a less innocent name.
Rain had slapped the city awake. It pinched her cheeks and cleared snot from her nostrils; showered the rheum from tired eyes, rouged her cheeks. London in a night-black cocktail dress: sleek and sexy and switched on. Eschewing the bus, Povey walked up Fortress Road past tired shops flagged with hopeful FOR SALE signs. Accommodation blocks sat squat in the misting rain; pale squares of light played hopscotch into the sky. Ceaselessly motile, the traffic zipped closed the tracts of the road, barring his view of the opposite pavement. He wondered if he should have asked Sutton to come with him.
Povey had received the details of the property — a converted one-bedroom flat — on Crayford Road that morning. The thought of moving back to north London spurred him on, despite his fatigue and the prospect of an awkward trip back to Lewisham. He paced the orange-blue street to Tufnell Park Tube where he turned on to its namesake road leading down to Holloway. The fifth turning on the right, according to the estate agent, was Anson Road. First left off that was Crayford Road. He wished he’d remembered to bring his A-Z.
The neon streetlamps fizzed, teasing his shadow. Broad streets spliced with the arterial road; Povey counted them off. It took longer than he’d anticipated, the blocks of houses between each turn-off proving to be substantial. Maybe he’d miscounted because this, the fifth, was Carleton Road, not Anson. He spent the next twenty minutes trying his luck down various side streets until, by chance, he found Anson Road. But the first turning on the left was not Crayford, it was Dalmeny Avenue. The first left at the other end of Anson, just in case he’d got it arse about tit, was Melvyn Close.
Okay, he calmed himself, you’re late now. Stop panicking and just ask someone.
But there was nobody to ask. Povey found his way back to the main road, intending to hail the first taxi he saw when he spotted an old man with a carrier bag walking on the other side of the street.
‘Excuse me!’ Povey called, trotting across the road. The man lowered his head, bringing the rim of his hat across his face, and hurried away.
Another man came out of his front door, saw Povey and hesitated, as if caught red-handed.
‘Do you know where Crayford Road is?’ asked Povey, before the man could retreat.
‘No, sorry,’ he said, ‘I don’t know this area.’ He slipped back behind the door.
Povey stared after him, confounded by what was happening. He returned along Anson Road, hoping he’d made a mistake and Crayford Road would reveal itself to him although he was late for the viewing now and the occupants might have gone out for the evening.
He rejoined Carleton Road and asked a woman wearing earphones if she could help. She seemed affronted, as if the earphones were a signal not to be disturbed, but waved vaguely in the direction of Tufnell Park Road with an umbrella speckled with white. Without bothering to thank her, Povey stalked away. It was as if he’d failed some test that prospective home-owners had to take before being accepted into the neighbourhood.
Now he could see how the estate agents had got it wrong. They had mistook Anson Road as the junction road with the main drag, when in fact it forked off Carleton. The fools. Here was Crayford Road, first turning off Carleton Road. Carleton. He dug in his bag, which was beginning to put a strain on his shoulder, and pulled out the property details. He underscored their false directions savagely. If he lost this flat it would be down to them. Should he hurry, he might catch the incumbent residents before they went out.
Povey ran past an estate on his right, all low, red-brick balconies and strip lighting. There was a figure moving slowly in the stairwell’s dark pools. Povey glimpsed a whitish inverted cone flicker past the frosted glass where a head ought to be. Then it was forgotten as he reached the row of Victorian houses where he might set up and be happy. The light was on; his hopes soared. A woman’s voice crackled over the intercom when he rang the bell. He tried to apologise when the buzzing of the lock drowned him out.
On the second floor he smoothed his hair and was attempting to dry his face with the sodden sleeve of his mac when the door opened.
‘I’m glad to catch you in,’ he said. ‘My name’s Clive Povey. I’m sorry I’m late.’
The woman blocking the wedge of light stepped back, although her eyes seemed to be fixed on a spot behind him. As he stepped through, her face set in a basic mode of recognition.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘the stairwell is so dark. I didn’t see you for a second.’ She led him into the living room where a swarthy man was drinking from a huge mug. Povey raised a hand and the man swivelled his eyes just as steam from his drink clouded the lenses of his spectacles.
‘As you can see,’ said the woman, who, Povey now saw, was heavily pregnant, ‘it’s quite small.’
I wouldn’t say that, he suddenly wanted to blurt, and clamped his teeth against a shock of laughter. It was very hot in the room; every bar of an electric fire glared. On a stuttering television, a news reader told of a Royal visit to Kuala Lumpur. It must be the faded screen that caused the cuffs of the waving Prince to appear stained white.
‘Through here,’ said the woman, ‘is the kitchen, which as you can see, is a bit tired but there’s a surprising amount of storage space. The bathroom’s just next door. Don’t worry about the cracks, they’re superficial. Nothing a dab of Polyfilla can’t handle. And here,’ she gestured with her hand; the other rested against her tummy, ‘is the bedroom.’
Giddy with the warp and tilt of the flat, Povey ducked into a bizarre room that seemed to taper away from him in terms of height and width; not so much the Cabinet as the Cubby-hole of Dr Caligari. The far end was little more than a sharply-angled recess. To sleep in this room, it would be necessary to quickly evolve a needle-shaped head. He tried to mask his disappointment and mumbled something about being in touch. The television mumbled something about ‘suicide’ and ‘train delays’ as the door snicked shut on him.
Outside, the rain was muscling more intensely against the houses. It stung his face as he returned to the main road. The figure in the stairwell was across the street from him now, the cone shape revealing itself as the peaked hood of a grey track suit. He was spraying white paint from an aerosol on to the side of a black van and had got as far as the middle ‘O’ before stopping, his head twitching at the sound of Povey’s gritting footsteps. Povey felt breath snatched from his lungs as the figure began to turn. He did not want to hang around to see the vandal’s face. He sprinted towards the road, trying to ignore the tattoo of following feet.
‘Taxi!’ he yelled, hurtling into the path of a black cab. The driver seemed to take an eternity to set off for Charing Cross once Povey had blundered into the back seat. As soon as they were away, he chanced a look behind him but the drenched street had diffused the light spilling from the lamps to such an extent that the entire avenue was concealed by a core of liquid fire.
He lay in bed listening to the uncertain squish of valves in his chest. It was hard to believe there was any blood in his veins for the coldness, the enervation he felt. He was scared to close his eyes in case he faded completely away. At least while he was awake he exerted some kind of physicality, despite the illusion of the blankets reducing his body to two dimensions.
His uncle was in the bedroom next to him; a muffled radio play moved through the wall by Povey’s ear. Over dinner his uncle had twice looked up startled, as if surprised to see his nephew sitting across from him. His uncle told him, as Povey had flapped his way out of his soaked clothes in the bathroom, that a body had been found by the deltoid spread of tracks leading into the depot at King’s Cross. There had been some consternation when the authorities had been unable to find its head, his uncle explained, somewhat tactlessly Povey thought. Initially, they believed it to be a murder. But then someone had discovered the head rammed deep inside the chest cavity, which suggested that the victim had been kneeling on all fours, facing the oncoming train. A witness had since confirmed this theory.
Povey slept fitfully until his uncle brought a cup of tea in for him at 7am. He had already decided not to go into work. Rather than wait until Lynn was in the office, he rang and left a message on the answerphone. If they wanted to find someone else to do the work, he couldn’t lose any more sleep over it than he was already.
After breakfast, tired of his uncle’s gory speculation as he scanned the newspapers and watched the morning news, Povey opted to go for a walk. He negotiated the lethal rush of traffic on the South Circular and headed north, the wink of Canary Wharf like a beacon ahead of him, pulling him into the heart of the city.
He reached Blackheath half an hour later and wandered without much conviction among the shops and across the fields where, even in the rain, kite enthusiasts attempted to launch their vivid array of wings, boxes and scimitars. At least here there was space to think. On three occasions he caught sight of that simple, wise word: an expression of vigilance or the boast of an omniscient entity. He saw it sprayed on the coping stones of a bridge wall, on the back of a road sign, a bench. Almost everyone he saw was streaked with white. What was going on? Was it paint? Those that weren’t daubed seemed to be like windmills without sails; all purpose drained from them. He saw faces in windows gazing at the totemic needle of Canary Wharf, flesh etiolated by a lack of association. Povey sat on a bench, numb to the seepage of rain through his trousers, and tried to remember what the word ‘community’ meant. Terrible thoughts were gravitating towards him since he’d heard about the suicide. He had once believed that the culmination of all his love and ambition would manifest itself in his nurturing of a child. But the compulsion behind this need had mutated recently. It might be because he had failed to establish any precious links with the women he met, but he suspected it was more a crisis of identity. The fear that he might look into the mirror one day and not recognise the face staring out came from the same black source as the voice persuading him that giving birth was nothing more than the laying down of an eventual death sentence.
The rain had stopped. He watched the band of mist retreat across the greensward and tear the wrapper of shade from the towers ranged across the capital. His jacket smelled musty and his shoes rested in a thin gruel of pigeon droppings. Maybe he would feel better if he took a long bath and rang some more estate agents. Invigorated with a plan, he caught the bus back to his uncle’s flat. There, he took the local paper and had a long soak, ringing possible flats with a red pen.
By the time his uncle returned from market, Povey was clean-shaven and dressed in a fresh suit, a list of addresses and accompanying times clasped in his hand. At the top, enclosed in a box, he’d written: Clive Povey — potential accommodation.
‘I’m off flat-hunting,’ he said, as his uncle pushed by, dropping an Evening Standard on his armchair. Povey saw the words: ‘TRAGEDY OF LOST SOUL’.
‘Right you are, lad,’ his uncle said, picking at a blotch of white on his coat. ‘Although, by the look of you, you might as well be off courting Royalty.’ He laughed thickly and set about making a pot of tea.
Povey was tempted to read the lead story in the newspaper, but he would be late for his first appointment. He trotted to the station and made the platform just as the train pulled up. At this time of day it was empty and Povey enjoyed the luxury of sitting wherever he pleased. In the aisle, the pattern of cleats from a pair of trainers took a journey in white paint towards the front carriage.
Soon, he was spotting fresh instances of the graffito. Now it was in black paint, now red. Sometimes it appeared with a suffix: a colon or an arrow flying away from the final ‘N’ as though an urgency had developed in the author’s craftsmanship, a need to convey the promise of something to follow.
It lifted Povey. His reading of the signs came as an epiphany, much like the sudden break in the weather. For the first time in weeks, his flesh seemed to sing and his nerves were attuned to every twitch of his clothes, each minute change of tack in the breezes that swept through the window vents.
Approaching London Bridge, he saw, plastered against the brickwork of a defunct printers, Known’s acme of achievement. An oblique of lemon-lime letters, each a foot high, parallel to the fire escape’s slant. The evidence of such industry seemed to match the sprawl of the city and the commitment to obliterate the concept of space. Povey had to believe that the word existed elsewhere in the country, and for many other people, not just the glut of girders and bridge panels here or the isolated jottings north and south of the city centre. He wasn’t sure he could cope with the possibility that the word was for his benefit alone.
At the terminus he passed through to the station concourse and checked the clock against his watch. He had half an hour to get to Finsbury Park. There wasn’t much of a wait for a northbound train. Quick change at Warren Street for the Victoria Line and he’d be at the first address on his list with time to kill.
He sat opposite a man in orange tartan bondage pants and wraparound shades. He was reading the Standard and Povey stared for a long time at the photograph on the front page. It showed, beneath the same headline he’d read at his uncle’s flat, a picture of railway lines. To the right was a cluster of policemen and railway staff in reflective clothing. To the left, stark and arresting, a white blanket failed to cover a body: its left arm poked out from beneath, the hand upturned and relaxed. It wasn’t this that shocked Povey, nor was it the faint but legible word punctuating the containers on a goods train as it travelled out of the borders of the shot. It was the inset picture of Sutton.
Povey couldn’t move his eyes from the page. When finally, the man folded his newspaper and stood up, Povey was left with the negative flare of the words on his retina, a red shriek of truth to jolt him from the black and white sobriety of the newsprint. A streak of white paint flashed before him as the train slowed for the platform; he’d overshot. This was Camden Town.
In no mood for the task he’d set out to achieve, Povey took the escalator, barely feeling the other passengers as they barged past him. On Camden High Street he was sandwiched by two men running to catch the same bus. His notes were knocked from his hand into a puddle. He watched as his name was washed away before moving off towards the Lock. Dusk was mottling the sky over the canal. He plodded down to the towpath, ignoring the street vendors as they plied him with stained glass light bulbs and kaleidoscopic knitwear. The buildings hunched their shoulders against him. Blocks of life piled on top of each other. No space left on the ground, take to the skies. High-rise and basement, purpose-built and luxury, maisonette and houseboat. Real-life soap in length and width and depth. If Povey had deviated by half a dozen steps from any roads he’d walked upon today he’d have ended up on somebody else’s property.
Further along the towpath, where the bridge on Oval Road passed over the canal, a hushed gathering moved against each other like a knot of snakes. He saw a grey hood slipping swiftly in between the limbs, keeping the crowd’s energy motivated. As he approached, he heard the people hissing, as though condemning a theatrical villain. But then he realised what it really was. He truffled around the drifts of litter at the towpath’s edge and grasped a thick blade of broken glass, in case he needed to defend himself. He moved forward and prepared himself for a battle against the tangle of bodies as they vied for position in front of the wall; there wasn’t much virgin space left on the brickwork. But as he tensed himself to enter the fray, the limbs unlocked and moved away from him, allowing him passage. Eyes assessed him, gracing him with a respectful nod to his physicality. His foot kicked against an aerosol and he bent to pick it up. For the first time in what seemed like weeks, he felt his mouth trying on a smile. Was there real blood surging through his veins after all? Might there be a portion of this tired, knowing city that could be his?
He clenched the glass and readied himself with the aerosol as white palms fed him to the wall. One way or the other, by God, he would reaffirm himself.