Tuesday, 8th August

A man stared back at me through a series of windows, quizzically, each panel pale with soot and framing his face, separating him from me and the sleepy west London street that had yet to fully awaken. The buzzer buzzed; I pulled the door, pushed the door, went inside. The man, who was quite old and did not like to turn his head but instead swivel on his chair, looked at me for a moment, in search of an explanation for my visit. Before him were half-a-dozen pale CCTV monitors that he reclined and watched. I wandered around the reception, reading notices to the residents and guests, which apologised, in English and Arabic, for the lift that had been out-of-order, dated February 2022. He gestured politely for me to take a seat—no doubt my wandering irritated him—but I declined. It was not long before another man arrived without shaking my hand or introducing himself, but affable enough, asking me—‘What you here to look at?’ And I told him—‘The boiler room… roof, risers… electrical incoming, incoming gas mains…’ Before I had finished talking he hurried off with an unspoken invitation to follow; through narrow corridors and uneven stairs down below the pavements off Edgware Road. The smell of damp and smog, of dust that had fallen from above like the chalk bones of a whale on the ocean floor; lights busted, complete darkness; the smell of piss and innumerable black puddles where a constant drip was backed by the distant sound of motor vehicles. He, my guide, this man with two first names, had worked in the building for thirty-five years. One of the drawings, all hand & board, in the boiler room, resting on the hot metal surface, stiff and noisy, was approved by the engineer three days before my brother was born in 1987. It struck me. As we went up to the roof in the goods lift, an improvised rubbish tip, he talked about the Arabs and how hot they liked their showers—‘I told them that their Prophet, He didn’t, He didn’t, you know, He didn’t have hot showers, and that. So why do they want one so bad? And they said, they told me—“That’s disrespectful.” And I told them it’s not.’ I was rummaging around in a riser cupboard, poking a cluster of telephones wires that went up & down, the scent of a soil vent pipe, as he continued to talk. ‘And when lockdown kicked off, they all got summoned back home, all the Qataris, they had to report home—That fireproofing never used to be there, and since it got installed, leaks have just been appearing!—a lot of them middle-eastern countries summoned their expats home, you know, and then the building got full up with all sorts… crackheads, transgenders… it was chaos… I’m surprised a fight never kicked off. The police didn’t wanna know.’ We went up to the roof, my attention split disproportionately between skyline and responsibility. I sought to look professional, committed fully to the task at hand, before I could no longer maintain a façade and said—‘This view though!’ He told me he never tired of it. We leaned over the edge and he pointed out the neighbouring buildings; I listened and time passed.

By lunch, a thin rain was falling. It was no bother if I should venture out and get wet; after all, the rain was cold. I was meeting Milly at the Barbican, which in August rain moodily rode the line between atmospheric and miserably unsightly. The rendezvous was meant to put an End to Things—or at least the form that Things had taken, capitalised, unhealthy and provocative—and the whole ordeal was having a greater impact on her than it was on me, who was relatively accustomed to being shunned and could move along with minimal disruption, not unlike a rail network or air traffic control. She could not leave her partner for me, that much was clear, and I accepted it as though a waiter had just informed me there was no more sirloin. It had been a real week of ours, me & her, she & I, intimacy & sushi, handbags & perfume, notes & brassieres, late nights together in the hall of the railway station, and it climaxed, in a way, at that Tuesday lunch hour.  When I saw her appearing from the crowds, I smiled, whether she could see it or not. At that distance I was able to appreciate her sunflower umbrella. An ex’s favourite flower was sunflower; it is odd how these things happen. Milly, knowing that she had been spotted, did not quicken her pace for anyone; if I had been the King of England, she would not have put her foot down. To my surprise, she had never visited the Barbican before; I apologised on behalf of the weather, then commended the weather on what it brought to the party; the florists and hairdressers were closed; steps slipped; in gaps in the development, the City lifted to heaven with glass fingers. Henceforth, the Barbican would remind Milly of me, for better or for worse, that was the human brain for you. In my bedside drawer was a note that she had sprayed with her perfume, which I balanced on my upper lip when I masturbated, that was the human brain for you. I ordered our coffee as she took a seat next to the door, a stammering gust of cold piercing the steamy, plantfilled innards. When someone entered—‘Ah, that’s nice,’ she said. Her graceful hands upon the coffee cup. She told me about the upcoming weddings, intercity trains past Leeds, sleepovers and maids, waterproof mascara holding strong with the friends who have lasted since year nine. The windows steamed. Much went unsaid, perhaps not meant or come to terms with, perhaps faint. At the end of it, I did not know what was happening, but imagining I was part of some Chekhov play, the name of which I am not intelligent enough to remember. Yes, the good-bye was familiar, but it was never greater than the events that preceded it. We embraced on the corner in the rain that was now falling harder. It was awkward, for as we wrapped our arms around each other, a man passed me that I had not seen in many years. A stranger then, a stranger now. He caught my gaze also, his evil face, holding it as he passed. And so the hug was ruined more than it had been by the rain.

It was foolhardy of me to arrange drinks that evening with an old friend. Tuesdays are no night for drinking on the town. As a twenty-something, yes, but in the birthday month of my thirty-eighth year, it was a struggle. Running his own company, he could leave when he pleased, and made it down there a drink before me. The pub was in the backstreets off Guildhall, a cobbled capillary towards Moorgate where the water collected in the middle, and narrow cigarette ends blocked the gullies. A wine bar stank there, where associates grizzled above the rim, Silk Cut aggravating the sunken air, characterless and straight out the eighties. How many times had I walked past? How many punter excuse me’s had I administered, personally, above or over my breath, between the soft squeeze of loud headphones? During a lockdown, during a breakup, during another lockdown, I passed down that narrow lane, only looking in the pub over a dry tongue or a European football championship. It was none of that when I finally crossed the threshold. It was all men. One is forgiven for feeling uncomfortable when they enter any environment that is populated exclusively by men. He arose from where he sat and waved at me—‘Two blokes just sat down at the fuckin table.’ He was a boxer, raised, but I only saw him draw fists once when his friend had been unfairly accosted; the man kind of spun like a ballerina and crumbled to the floor. Every boxer I have ever known was always apologetic and ashamed after they put down an unwitting aggressor. He bought the first round. We retired to the rear of the pub and briefly caught up before he asked me to come and work for him. We came up as engineers at the same time. We reminisced. ‘I want someone I can just leave to run their own jobs, look after the graduates while I’m knocking about London.’ Just before the recession in ’08, me, him and another young man, Williams, were at the same firm trying to get along. Williams had not done so well since then; some sort of a breakdown, more cocaine than you could wave a stick at, a series of partners whose naked photos he shared with unwilling strangers, a dead father, tears & tears for years, you know how it goes, a dark living room, curtains drawn, in pieces and about to kill himself, a stranger enters and asks what the fuck is going on. Last I saw of him, he had lost half his teeth and most of his hair. ‘Cunt looked like some Prince William nightmare in a meeting room off London Fields. Jesus,’ I said.  How our paths had diverged! After a few hours, to soak up the booze, I bought a pack of pork scratchings, which reminded me of an ill-fated date. I was all romance and heartbreak. He was director of a couple companies, married, house, dog, cycled all over Europe and Asia, had his grade one piano recital in a couple of weeks. I do not know whether it was exhaustion catching up with me or a bad keg, but I began to feel forgetful, quite peculiar. On the train home, Milly said—‘I’d hire you.’ My response—‘I’d employ you, too; full contract, on the books, all perks.’