It seemed as though I had never gone anywhere before.
I had spent the last few days at home, fixed to my desk. I hadn’t shaved or bathed. I hadn’t spoken any English for the whole time, or to anyone my own age, anything other than prosaic affairs. I hadn’t combed my hair, changed my clothes. I was recovering from the flu. I was too busy. I was getting no sleep yet could not force myself from my bed in the mornings until late. I had been living, as often I did, between the covers of a book.
The invitation had come suddenly. It was entirely unlooked for. It was like one of those beautiful letters I had dreamed of when I was a lonely child. The snowy white and mysterious rectangle I would find on the landing floor against the dark wood veneer of the floorboard. Which would take me out of the hard realities of life and into a magical world of jovial wit, beautiful women and exciting adventures. I spent a while procrastinating. I thought of the opportunities I would miss if I went. I thought of my own overactive imagination. Surely it would turn out a disappointment. It often did.
But then, I sensed my own cowardice, the negativity of my thoughts. It was not always so. Those few times, those few, few times… And thus the decision was made. I could never entertain the idea of my own cowardice in anything, even when it was a secret. I could never let go of the attempt, even when it meant failure. I would have to go.
At six I set off.
It was remarkable how little cold it was. On the tube I sat by myself in silence. A man had been kicking a brightly coloured crisp wrapper across the platform. Up and down he had gone with it, a few inches he pushed it forwards each time. He stared at it as he did so. The dream of gold and glory.
Liverpool Street station bustled as it always did. Pigeons walked along the white tiles and slender damsels in high heels, much in the same fashion. I did not know the way to Brick Lane from here. I still had quite a few minutes spare. If I could not find the way, I would not have to go. To be lost in East London was more of an adventure than a pre-arranged evening, after all. London could take me somewhere. I walked down a little way and, passing by a man handing out the Evening Standard, asked him if he knew the way. He said he did. I promised myself to follow him to the letter, no matter my own thoughts on the matter. I would become an automaton. He pointed me to the big old RBS building and told me to turn right down there, to the big old Church and keep walking. He was entirely right.
The RBS building was quite a sight in the night. So was the Church. Very Gothic. I thought of taking some photographs as I had my camera with me, but was rather put off by the big group of German-speaking tourists. I had by now forgotten the directions from the Evening Standard man – directions were never my tour de force. I was a poet, not a traveller. An explorer of the mind if I could be so conceited as to say so. I asked London again in the form of a peculiar young dark-haired man for the way and, without looking at me, he pointed it out.
Young women ran everywhere across the road in large laughing groups. I wondered whether they went anywhere without the night, whether they ever stopped laughing. Whether they were ever alone. I remembered Thomas Hardy’s curiosity on the subject. He had wondered where such beautiful faces went and why we did not see them save for upon the streets of London, where they somehow lived. The observation of the lonesome lover of beauty. The answer, of course, was quite simple. They were there where we were not. With others. Other men.
And now came Brick Lane, past an alleyway and those wide arches that reminded me of the twilight world of Victorian crimes and whores, of East London and its rough accents. The sign glared at me in Bangladeshi, so close to the Hindi I had taught myself to read a few years ago. Men shorter than me stood outside their restaurants, carefully avoiding me in my grey greatcoat and stubble, my hands in my pockets, a lime green carry-all on my shoulder which, unconsciously and post-ironically, said ‘Case’. They called out to the women to come in and dine. Lights were up everywhere.
I walked down, dawdling. I felt as though I had never been here before, that I had always been here before. And both of these propositions were true. I stared at the graffiti, at the people, at the cars, at the pavement, at the walls. At myself in the windows. Everything seemed unreal. The cars flashed past me like a stream of light, like speeded up videos.
I began taking snapshots of the art on the street. At first I faced the images squarely. However, the flash spoilt the photo by putting a spotlight in its centre. I started then to look awry at the thing, put a perspective on it. It worked much better. People stared at me as they passed, pretending that they didn’t. A man almost cycled into me on the street, swore at me. I couldn’t quite catch what he said. He had half-whispered it to himself. Perhaps he was swearing at himself for not seeing me, rather than swearing at me for not looking at him. I watched a black man lean over and try to kiss a tramp woman on the floor in her sleeping bag. He was wearing a skull cap and a black bomber jacket, black everything.
And now I was here.