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Authors: Rupert Thomson

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BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
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He had almost finished the film when the double-doors slammed open. A black guy appeared. He was leaning forwards, hands bunched at thigh-level. Well-dressed. Furious. Without thinking, Moses snapped off another couple of pictures. He watched the black guy through the camera as he locked the double-doors, threw wary glances left and right, noticed Moses,
and walked towards him, growing larger, more detailed.

‘What the fuck're you doing?' The voice was smooth and venomous, anger planed down.

Moses lowered his camera. ‘Taking a few pictures. Of the building.'

The black guy's eyes were pools of yellow acid. Moses felt them eat into his face. ‘I don't like people taking pictures, all right?'

‘All right.'

The black guy spun on his heel, and walked over to a white Mercedes parked in the shadow of the side-street. He drove past Moses in low gear, tyres trickling on the tarmac like something about to explode. Moses wound his film back thoughtfully, his eyes following the car as it turned the corner.

*

He returned to The Bunker twice that week. It was closed both times, lifeless. He wondered whether it had closed for good.

Two weeks later he was driving up to Soho to meet his flatmate, Eddie, for a drink when he happened to pass the club again. This time he noticed a few people clustered round the doorway. It was raining. A slab of violet light glistened on the slick black pavement. The place looked open. He stamped on his brakes and pulled into the side of the road. A horn blared behind him, headlights flashed full beam. Fuck you too, he thought.

Leaving the engine idling, he crossed the pavement. It
was
open. £2.50 to get in. The blonde girl selling tickets smiled at him. Change of plan, he decided.

He parked his old Rover in the side-street and ran back to the club in case it closed while he wasn't looking.

‘Is there a phone in here?' he asked the girl.

‘Down the corridor on the right,' she said.

But he postponed the call to Eddie (Eddie was always late anyway) and, moving down the corridor, turned left into a room with a small bar and a dance-floor. Black walls. The usual barrage of lights. Iggy Pop's ‘No Fun' slammed out of head-high stacks of speakers. A Mohican danced alone, fists clubbing the air. Already damaged sofa-seating seemed to shrink back against the walls. A short flight of stairs led to a second room, also painted black. Lengths of ripped black netting gathered like stormclouds on the ceiling. White neon tubes fizzed above the bar. The facing wall, a solid mass of mirror-tiles, glimmered a dim silver. There were black tables, sticky with spilt drinks. His kind of place.

He walked back through the club to the main entrance. The blonde girl was talking to a man whose name, if Moses had heard it right, was Belsen.
Moses waited for her to notice him. His size made that inevitable.

When she turned her head, he said, ‘I'm sorry, where did you say the phone was?'

She laughed. ‘Have you been looking for it all this time?'

‘Sort of.'

‘Come on, I'll show you.' And then, to Belsen, ‘Won't be a second.'

Belsen's watery eyes followed them down the corridor. His face looked as if it had been made of wax which had melted, run, then hardened again. He was wearing a Crombie and drinking Coke out of a can.

‘Who's that man?' Moses asked the girl.

‘That's Belsen. He's the bouncer.'

‘I don't think he likes me.'

The girl smiled. ‘He doesn't like anyone. That's his job. There's the phone.'

Moses thanked her. He dialled the pub where he was supposed to be meeting Eddie and when Eddie came on he said, ‘New venue, place called The Bunker.' He gave Eddie the address and hung up.

On his way to the bar, he bumped into somebody he recognised from a club in the West End. Moses knew him as The Butcher. The Butcher wore a naval cap and a belted leather apron. A meathook earring swung from his left ear. His sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, exposing a pair of scarred white forearms. The Butcher sold speed. Moses bought a £5 deal and headed for the Ladies. ‘The Ladies is cool,' The Butcher had told him.

The Butcher was right. Chinese-red walls. Hairspray and smoke instead of air. Men slumped in wash-basins. Girls with their eyes on the mirror. Moses stood in line for one of the two cubicles.

When his turn came, he squeezed inside and bolted the door.

A couple of minutes later somebody wondered what he was doing.

‘Wanking, probably,' another voice suggested.

Derisive laughter.

‘I'm not,' Moses called out.

‘What's taking you so long then?'

He didn't answer this time. He had to chop the speed on the sloping top of the cistern and that wasn't easy. One clumsy movement could send the whole lot cascading into the toilet bowl. He cut the powder into four crude lines with his Cashpoint card, rolled a £5 note and, bending his right nostril to the paper, vacuumed them up one after the other. No sense in running the gauntlet of all those beautiful jeering girls again. He dropped the paper into the toilet and flushed. Cynical applause from the other side of the door.

‘About fucking time.'

Moses emerged, hands raised, warding off abuse. ‘Really sorry about that.'

‘You would've been,' a girl muttered as she pushed past him, ‘if I'd done it on the floor.'

He had forgotten all about Eddie. He had two or three drinks, talked to the blonde girl (whose name was Louise), and once, much to his astonishment, for it was something he rarely attempted, danced. The speed, he thought. OK stuff. He'd have to use that butcher again.

At least an hour had passed when a smile appeared.

‘Oh dear,' the smile said, ‘you look a bit fucked up, Moses.'

‘Hello, Eddie.'

The smile handed Moses a whisky. ‘Swallow that and we'll go smoke a joint.'

Moses tipped the whisky into his mouth and handed the glass back. The smile became a grin. They occupied a dark corner, lit the joint. A crush of bodies soaked up the music now. It was hot.

‘Vince and Jackson've come along too,' the grin said, ‘but I lost them.'

Moses didn't answer. He was beginning to feel strange. A smell had risen in his nostrils, a smell he couldn't identify or explain. Something like rotten meat, something like shit. But it wasn't so much the actual smell that affected him as the idea that he had
noticed
the smell and would now be unable to
not
notice it. The smell was like the symbol of a stage he had reached in an extremely unpleasant and irreversible process. It told him there was no going back. Not now. Oh dear indeed.

His skull began to revolve of its own accord inside his scalp. His forehead became the target for a volley of tiny ice-cold missiles. He touched his hairline and sweat glistened on his fingertips. He stumbled towards the exit.

Half an hour later Jackson ran into Eddie. ‘Have you seen Moses?' he asked.

‘Last I saw of him,' Eddie said, ‘he was going that way.' He pointed to the corridor. ‘Seemed to be in a hurry.'

They exchanged a knowing look.

Jackson eventually found Moses in a skip on the main road. Moses was lying on a heap of rubble, his head halfway inside a TV set. He had lost a shoe. His arms and legs were flung out, crooked, the shape of a swastika. He looked as if he had fallen out of an aeroplane. Jackson sighed. He went to fetch Eddie, but Eddie had disappeared. With some girl, knowing Eddie. He found Vince instead. Led him outside. They stood on the pavement and stared at Moses.

‘What are we going to do with him?' Jackson asked.

Vince climbed into the skip. ‘Hey, Moses,' he said.

Moses didn't move.

Vince poked him with the toe of his boot. Absolutely no reaction. Vince kicked Moses several times in various parts of his body. Including once in the groin, for good measure. A faint groan came from inside the TV.

Vince climbed down shaking his head. ‘Better call him a cab.'

Jackson nodded wisely. ‘Usual procedure. Leave it to me.'

He ran back to The Bunker and asked the blonde girl where the phone was. She showed him. ‘Is your friend all right?' she asked him. ‘I saw him leave. He didn't look very well.'

‘He'll be all right,' Jackson said. ‘You know. Tomorrow.'

He called the cab company they always used and explained the situation. ‘Yes, that's right,' he said. ‘The skip on Kennington Road.'

Ten seconds.

‘Don't worry about that,' he said. ‘I'll pay you this end.'

Another five seconds.

He grinned. ‘No,' he said, ‘he doesn't usually do that.'

When Eddie arrived home at three that morning, he found Moses asleep on the sofa in the lounge with both shoes on his feet and a smile on his face.

Cab-drivers are amazing.

*

Moses had been living with Eddie for almost two years. When he first moved in, somebody had told him that Eddie would be the perfect flatmate. Sociable, loaded, out a lot. Perfect.

Not so.

Eddie was too good-looking to be the perfect flatmate. He had blue eyes and a symmetrical white smile. His skin was so smooth that an American girl had once asked him whether he oiled his body. He walked on the balls of his feet, so he communicated purpose, energy, sexual hunger. He worked in the City, some job whose mystery he preserved by using phrases like
interest differential
and
liquidity ratio.
Most people thought him just too good to be true. The phone rang constantly. So did the doorbell. Lying in bed at night, Moses soon learned to recognise the sequence of sounds that meant Eddie had come home: the giggles on the stairs, the gulp of the toilet, the three-syllable squeal of Eddie's bedroom door. It seemed that, sooner or later, half the world's population would pass through that ground-floor flat in Battersea. It could have been worse, of course. As Moses said
to Eddie after their first exhausting week together: ‘Thank Christ you're not bisexual.'

The months went by and Moses developed a theory about Eddie. He became secretly convinced that Eddie had once been a statue, that Eddie had been released from his immobility, activated, as it were, but only for a limited period of time, and that, sooner or later, Eddie would have to return to his pedestal (somewhere in the Mediterranean, no doubt) and readopt his classical pose (involving, Moses imagined, a discus or a javelin). This explained Eddie's smooth skin, his sculptured features and his athletic physique. It explained the hectic dyslexic way he lived. It explained his attitude to women (for which Moses could find no other possible explanation). Above all, it explained why he never got home until three or four in the morning. Life was short for Eddie.

Whenever one of Moses's friends travelled abroad, he asked them to keep an eye out for empty pedestals. Nothing of any significance had turned up so far. There had been a brief surge of hope, the glimmer of a breakthrough, when he received a postcard from Vince's girlfriend, Alison, reporting the existence of an unoccupied plinth on one of the remoter islands in the Cyclades. However, the missing statue had been removed to a museum in Athens, and Alison assured Moses, in a second postcard bought at that very museum, that she had seen the statue in question and that it definitely wasn't Eddie.

During the summer and autumn of 1979 Moses kept Eddie under constant surveillance. When they passed a statue in the street, he watched Eddie's face, but it never registered even the slightest flicker of recognition or unease. Either Eddie was a natural actor, or he was like Moses and part of his memory had been erased.

Once, Moses – a casual Moses, studying his fingernails – had asked Eddie a trick question.

‘Where were you born, Eddie?'

‘Basingstoke,' Eddie said.

Basingstoke indeed. What kind of fool did he take Moses for?

Then, a few days before their first visit to The Bunker, Moses forced a confrontation. Uncertainty and frustration had been eating into the fabric of his life like an army of moths. He opened colour supplements and Michelangelo's David would be standing there, eyes averted, as if he knew. He went for long walks through parks only to see stone Neptunes frozen in the act of climbing out of artificial lakes. He dreamed about football matches attended by capacity crowds of 100,000 statues, scarves wrapped round their cold necks, rattles in their dramatic outstretched hands. He couldn't take it any longer. He had to know the truth.

It was a weekend. Moses had been sitting at the kitchen table when Eddie ambled in wearing his blue towel dressing-gown. Eddie had a loose-muscled way of moving about, even first thing in the morning. His eyes were heavy, though. He had slept alone and that always took a lot out of him. What you aren't used to can hit you pretty hard.

Eddie poured some cornflakes into a bowl, added milk and sugar, and sat down opposite Moses. These movements tortured Moses. Their slowness, their relaxed simplicity, crackled through him like electricity. He felt as if he was about to short-circuit. The first spoonful was halfway to Eddie's mouth when Moses spoke:

‘Eddie, were you ever a statue?'

There. He had said it. After all these months.

‘I mean, you know,' he went on, ‘have you got to go back sometime and be one again? And, if so, how long have you got exactly? Because if you are going back, I think I should know, really. After all, I
am
living with you.'

A puzzled expression, remote, barely defined, moved across Eddie's face, but left it undisturbed. Wind over stone.

‘All right then,' Moses said, ‘just tell me where it is. The pedestal, I mean. I'm curious, you see.'

‘Moses,' Eddie said slowly, ‘it's very early in the morning and I'm trying to eat my breakfast, OK?' He shook his head. The first spoonful of cornflakes completed its journey to his mouth.

Moses rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Eddie's cereal made a rhythmic crunching sound in the silence of the kitchen. Moses saw a battalion of statues with stiff arms and stony faces marching through the darkness towards him.

BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
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