Authors: Neil Cross
At 5.30, he kissed his aunt goodbye, told Hetty he’d see her soon and left the home. He hurried towards the city centre.
The Watershed was an arts centre. Its bar and restaurant, on the first floor, overlooked Bristol’s redeveloped docks. Holloway bounded up the stairs, past Spanish movie posters. Inside the bar were eleven or twelve people: a disproportionate number of goatee beards and unflattering, narrow spectacles.
Kate waited for him at a table. Chrome and glass.
For three years, Kate had lived with a man called Adrian in a Clifton mansion flat that overlooked the suspension bridge. Adrian had not reported Holloway or pressed charges for assaulting him the previous New Year’s Eve.
‘Kate,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’ He was breathless.
She had ordered drinks. A bottle of Chablis, a large bottle of mineral water. A half-drunk glass of each on the table before her. He sat, poured a tumbler of water, drained it. Then poured a glass of wine. Drained half of it. Looked up.
‘Oops,’ he said, and set the glass on the table.
She raised an eyebrow.
‘So,’ she said. ‘Why the delay? Armed siege?’
He wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. Taste of salt.
‘Ha. No. No: I popped in on Grace. I hadn’t been for a while. Sorry.’
Like his great-aunt’s, his wife’s face softened.
She said: ‘It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t remember, anyway.’
‘Oh, the women in your life,’ she said.
He smiled, trying to be good-natured.
‘Have you been waiting long?’
‘Five minutes? I knew you’d be late.’
Seeing her smile for knowing him well made his stomach tumble. The previous weekend he’d bought a new suit and tie from Next. He’d worn it for the first time this morning. He hoped he looked OK.
Kate was tanned. She wore a summer dress and flat, strappy sandals. Her hair was dark, cut short: a blunt fringe, feathered across her ears. To him she looked very beautiful.
He remembered similar summer days, similar bars. Since the final dissolution of their marriage, she had acquired a certain serenity, a contentment the profundity of which hurt him.
‘So,’ she said. ‘How are you keeping?’
He leaned his forearms on the table, knitted his fingers.
‘So-so. You know. Broken heart. Not sleeping.’
She sipped chilled wine.
‘Really really really.’
He smiled. Deep, fond lines at the corners of his eyes, radiating. ‘I’m not sleeping too badly. Considering. Still seeing the hippie counsellor.’
It was nice to surprise rather than disappoint her.
‘Still going. Once a week. Twice, if I experience an urge to take a brick to someone’s head.’
She laughed, and he laughed and for two or three seconds they were husband and wife.
He wiped the corner of an eye with a knuckle.
‘You’ll tell him that?’
That Holloway see a counsellor was Adrian’s condition for not pressing charges and losing Holloway his job.
Adrian was a barrister.
She shook her head.
‘He still has nightmares. He wakes up at night. He thinks you’re in the flat.’
He laughed, and his snaggle tooth caught briefly on his lower lip.
. He’s six feet fucking two inches tall and he bench-presses Volkswagens.’
You’re smiling because I was able to hurt him
, he thought.
‘You know what it’s like.’ The smile fell and weather passed behind her eyes. ‘Imagine how he’d feel. Me here, drinking with you.’
A pleasant, sinuous twist of vitriol inside him.
‘He doesn’t know you’re here?’
‘He doesn’t want me anywhere
you. He thinks you’re deranged.’
The pleasure modulated in less than a second to something like agony.
‘For Christ’s sake.’
He read her face, closed his eyes.
‘Sorry. Forget the Wurzel.’
‘He’s not a Wurzel. He’s from Bath. He went to Cambridge.’
With that, he laughed. Later he would sob into his knees, as he did every time he saw or spoke to or sometimes thought about her.
She said: ‘I don’t know why I bother,’ and slapped the back of his hand, gently enough. ‘You arsehole.’
He drained the wine, poured a second. He lifted the glass and examined the light through it. ‘Beautiful,’ he said.
‘See?’ she said. ‘You’re learning to enjoy it.’
‘Hm,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking of taking a class. In the evenings.’
She said: ‘How are you doing? In yourself?’
I am coming apart at the seams.
‘Not so bad.’
‘What can I say?’
They had met to discuss the twenty-first birthday of their daughter. Caroline Holloway was in the second year of a media studies degree at Leeds Metropolitan University. She was at an age, he knew, by which she’d have taken many legally proscribed drugs: cannabis certainly, probably ecstasy or a derivative. Amphetamines, some cheap cocaine, maybe ketamine. Possibly LSD. Not heroin.
She was doing well. She’d met a boy.
He pinched his nostrils. Took a long breath. ‘She didn’t tell me.’
Kate shrugged. ‘She probably didn’t think to. It’s probably nothing.’
‘It’s probably nothing, nothing. She doesn’t want the third degree about the long-haired lover from fucking Liverpool.’
At the corner of his wife’s mouth and eyes were lines that were new to him, who mentally had mapped, and physically had kissed every line, every crease and fold of her body.
He filled her glass. She had to leave in half an hour. Meeting Adrian. They were going on to the theatre.
That evening, Jack Shepherd arrived in north London.
For three months, he’d worked his way along the south coast of England. He stopped in Brighton for three days.
That week there were thunderstorms across Britain. Shepherd sat on the sea wall between the two piers, watching the rain drive into the sea. While traffic hissed behind him, he planned his future.
He walked to the station, head bowed, and caught the next train to London Victoria. He was still damp when he arrived. The Adidas bag slung over his shoulder, he walked along the dirty, wet station concourse, past the diminutive Our Price and large W. H. Smith, to the tube station.
On the Victoria line northbound, he chose Finsbury Park at random and stepped off into the London night. Finsbury Park did not smell like Bristol. It smelled rich with warm rain and exhaust fumes and half-rotten fruit.
Within the first two or three minutes, he believed himself to have seen at least one representative of each ethnic group and major religion represented in Britain. This made him smile as at a grand adventure.
He passed a Kwik Save, no less than three Sunrise Food Stops, the Happening Bagel Bakery, a dilapidated post office, a KFC Express, a Shell garage. It seemed perfect. On Seven Sisters Road, alongside a tower block called Park House, he found a small bed-and-breakfast hotel.
He stopped here and booked himself in. Paid cash. One week in advance.
Bone tired, he fell asleep, fully clothed and steaming gently, on the candlewick bedspread.
He awoke, refreshed, at 8 a.m. and did not remember that he had dreamed.
He set about finding a place to live.
Apparently, Rex Dryden wasn’t Rex Dryden’s real name, but that didn’t much bother anybody, least of all Rex Dryden himself. Still less did it vex those five, seven or nine hundred individuals (exactly how many varies according to which newspaper you read) who joined him in the Temple of Light,
‘All good churches need at least two names,’ said Rex Dryden.
Nor was the question uppermost in the mind of the one, three or five hundred (again, reports vary) who, beguiled by his recognition of their spiritual awareness, took into their mouths and swallowed the soft drink laced with lethal poison he supplied them with shortly before Christmas 1999 in order to speed them into the emancipation of bodily death.
Rex Dryden was built like a bouncer; not tall, all shoulder and chest and forearm. His legs had bowed beneath the prodigious heft of torso. Yet his movements had about them an unhurried grace whose quality belied the brute fact of his construction. His head was meatily spherical as a watermelon: balding, shaved to stubble. His beard was coarse and close-cropped, silver and black. It extended towards his eyes and into the vigorous snarl of grey hair that sprouted within the fecund hollow between his clavicles.
He wore Savile Row suits and rimless spectacles which lent him the air of a dubious small businessman grown respectable; the kind of man, rude-born, who finds himself, silvermane and bald, clasping spatulate finger and thumb about bone-china handle, taking tea with the Queen.
In life, as on his many television appearances, Rex Dryden displayed both a refined intelligence and a phlegmy, lascivious, east London cackle. He would throw his neckless head far back on expansive shoulders, bark once, broadly and appreciatively.
Then he would lower his head and delicately knuckle the moist corner of one eye, and his outsized body would convulse spasmodically for seconds or minutes. His humour was vast. Rex Dryden found almost everything funny. Even himself. Even the end of the world.
When he was done laughing, he might lean towards you and fix you with his eyes, which were quite beautiful, luminous blue and artful, and he might tell you that the world was going to end, and now the laughter in Rex Dryden’s eyes was for you, and the guileless simplicity of your disbelief: there would be savagery and disorder, he might tell you, and discord and slaughter and suffering and death, and global destruction and dismay—and for an unguarded, mesmerized moment you might find yourself not quite believing, but trusting in the magnitude of his conviction. Just for a moment. And you might find yourself, like many before you, unable to rid yourself of the thought of him.
Many of those who determined to leave their lives behind and join Rex Dryden (one did not follow him) in illumination were not the kind of people who had imagined they might be capable of such feats. But follow him they did, in their dozens and hundreds. (Quite how many hundreds, of course, is open to speculation. If records were kept, none were discovered.)
Dryden did not ask for their money (although the money came from somewhere). He did not demand that his acolytes abstain from sex, either within or without marriage, nor that they marry strangers in mass ceremonies. Nor was he a predatory sexual libertine who availed himself of the conjugal expedience of his converts. All he demanded, at first, was that they listen to him and seek to understand. He told them that life was wonderful.
He talked of Shiva and Kali; of Orpheus, Prometheus; of Christ and the Buddha and Mohammed; of Knights Templar and Rosicrucians; of Heisenberg and Bohr and Leonardo; of Jack Kennedy and Neil Armstrong; of the Priory de Sion and the Freemasons; of the Apocryphal Gospels and the Revelations of Fatima; of Nicaea and Ephesus; of anti-popes; of pyramids; of Akhenaten and Moses; of the Lost Treasure of the First Temple; the cabbala; of Atlantis; the earth and the sky and a land beyond but within; of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra and Bedford Falls; he would talk about history, and Mystery, and what great men had always known: there are those who are greater, and, come the end, the illuminated shall join them.
He did not claim to be a great man; he was a follower of great men: he was Saul of Tarsus, he was John the Baptist, he was Dr Watson. He was Clarence the wingless angel. He was Sweeney among the Nightingales. Broadbacked, hirsute and human, all too human.
He was by no means the first to bring the world this news.
‘But I am the last,’ he said.
Jack Shepherd, who once had been Andrew Winston Taylor, was resident in the bed-and-breakfast hotel for two weeks that coincided with the beginning of an uncommonly hot summer.
On his second day in London, an Armenian barber shaved his head. He kept the black, grey-tangled beard he’d been growing for several weeks. From a dusty local optician, where a small bell rang when he opened the door, Shepherd bought a pair of oval, wire-framed spectacles. They balanced like pince-nez on his big face. He looked like a pioneer; a proud, tall man posing in golden-brown daguerreotype. Something was still not right, but it wasn’t the hair or the beard, which had at last stopped itching, or the spectacles.
It was the address.
After ten days, he noticed a second load of Japanese tourists being herded on to a Gatwick-bound coach. He suspected they’d been misled about the location and calibre of the hotel.
He realized he was becoming a fixture. Short- and long-term hotel residence was a relative concept.
He remembered seeing a documentary or reading an article featuring a man who (for what reason he could not recall) was resident for a decade or more in the airside departure lounge of Charles de Gaulle airport. The man was a stowaway of some kind, a political prisoner or refugee who didn’t qualify for entry into France but who couldn’t be returned to his country of origin. So he remained trapped in the interzone of the departure lounge; his belongings on a luggage trolley, his meals provided by sympathetic airport staff and airline crew.
Escaping one life was not enough.
While resident in the hotel, Shepherd avoided social intercourse as far as he was able. He didn’t want to speak to anybody. He feared that conversation might press him into shape like a thumb printing its whorls into a ball of clay.
He spent his days repetitiously: breakfast in the Moonshine café on Blackstock Road (two scrambled eggs, beans, sausages, grilled tomatoes, two fried slice and three mugs of bracingly strong tea), while reading the classified advertisements in the local papers and
. He propped the papers awkwardly against tomato-red ketchup bottles with red coagulate spouts as he shovelled food into his craw. Then he would pick a direction and wander. He noted launderettes, pubs, cafeterias, DIY stores, betting shops, pizza shops, North African patisseries. He walked streets he had no wish to walk again, although he was not assaulted, and streets that reminded him of the life he’d left, which he also never wished to walk again, for an altogether different reason. He walked streets where loud music pumping through upper-storey windows inexplicably filled him with profound contentment. He walked council estates whose architecture made him dejected and whose tenants he feared. He stumbled upon peaceful, tree-lined roads whose quiet, suburban peculiarity, adjacent to such deprivation, seemed grotesque. He imagined that such proximities could prevail only in London. Sprawling and unplanned. Impartially ravenous.
Wandering, he stopped and read advertisements in newsagent windows, looking for a room to rent. He needed a landlord willing to disregard his want of references. This proved more difficult than he’d anticipated. He was angry with himself. He could at least have rented a Bristol bedsit for three, four or six months prior to his departure, leaving it exactly as he’d found it (perhaps even have had it professionally cleaned!), and thus picked up a good referee. But it had never occurred to him to do so and the books from the classified pages of the
had not so advised him.
He didn’t have a devious or even a calculating mind, and he required guidance in such matters.
He’d assumed that landlords, being landlords, would happily compromise references for rent in advance, cash in hand, plus a cash deposit against damage. Somewhat surprisingly, this seemed to have an effect quite contrary to that intended: over the telephone, the proposal made him sound forlorn and suspicious. Soon he came to hate London landlords, distended parasites on the hunched, scabrous back of their bountiful mother.
The hotel didn’t qualify as a previous address. His previous address didn’t count as a previous address, since it belonged to the person he’d previously been. His entire existence lacked corroboration. He felt spectral and temporary.
On the Saturday at the end of his third week, he jotted down the number listed on a room-to-let card posted in a newsagent window on Holloway Road, found a telephone kiosk and dialled the number. After four rings, a woman lifted the receiver. The voice was clipped and very English. She seemed to be addressing someone else. Shepherd heard: ‘—fucking
you arsehole.’ Then, harassed: ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I’m calling about the room. Is this an inconvenient time?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘not at all.’
This did not sound altogether true and a short silence followed.
He said: ‘Is it still free?’
‘Yes. Two rooms. Doubles. Listen, there’s no point us talking about this over the phone. Would you like to come round for a cup of tea?’
It had just passed 11 a.m. They made an appointment for 12.45. Shepherd stopped off at Woolworth’s and bought a digital watch. He didn’t want to be late.
After consulting the mini
he decided there was enough time to walk to the address he’d been given, stopping off on the way for a cold drink. In shirtsleeves and sunglasses, a black nylon briefcase from Next slung over his shoulder, he defied the rabble and the heat and exhaust fumes that pooled like industrial soup in the windless heat. He turned from Holloway Road on to Seven Sisters Road and headed into the shimmering distortion.
On the way, he stopped off for a cold drink, but still arrived ten minutes early. He killed time by leaning on a lamp-post and pretending to consult the
The house was a dilapidated Victorian structure; three story and an attic conversion, set on the corner with Stroud Green Road, within sight of a Tesco
. Behind a low wall, the concrete front garden was cracked and overgrown with etiolated weeds. Behind open windows, undrawn curtains hung inert in the heat.
At 12.45 according to his new watch, he collected himself and marched to the front door. He was hot and damp. Even minor exertion on such a day was fatiguing. Beneath the beard, his skin itched like prickly heat rash.
He rang the bell. Waiting, he adjusted his shirt tails.
The door opened. Behind it stood a woman. She was pale, perhaps in her early thirties. She wore a blunt bob, dyed black, with a severe fringe. It iridesced in the sunlight like a magpie. Her eyes were big and her mouth was small. She wore 501s, faded almost to white and holed at the knees; a black shirt, open at the throat, cuffs unbuttoned. She clutched the door at head height and set her weight on one hip. The shirtsleeve fell back. Her inner arm was blue-white, like fresh milk. Her feet were bare and summer-dirty. On each foot, the second toe was longest by a knuckle.
She came up to Shepherd’s chest.
The hallway in which she stood was scented in ways he could not yet specify: the antique pungency of incense and cannabis. Petuli oil. Cigarettes. Some old cooking. The musk of cats.
She smiled, perhaps with some irony, and extended a hand. With her left hand, she shielded her eyes. Wedding band on the third finger.
‘You must be Jack.’
At once, he recognized the woman on the phone. Her accent belonged to another era. He imagined her in a flapper dress and low-heeled pumps.
‘I must be,’ he said, and shook her hand.
She retreated half a step. People often did this, unconsciously calibrating his dimensions.
She said: ‘God, you look really hot.’
She stepped aside to admit him. He followed her down a long hallway with worn floorboards. To his left, the hall opened on to a sitting room. Immediately to his right was a stairway with a peeling white banister and uncarpeted stairs. At the far end, the hallway opened on to the kitchen.
It was a layout he recognized.
Islamic rugs were laid upon the floorboards. Heavy with dust and worn threadbare, they curled dangerously skywards at the corners. Bulbs hung on bare cords. Various framed prints were hung on the walls: a Dalí that Shepherd recognized; a melancholy Rembrandt self-portrait; Elvis Presley as the risen Christ; Leonardo’s androgynous Baptist with his
smile and obscurely eerie raised finger; Hitler as Grail Knight. Three separate prints depicting Arcadian, pastoral shepherds leaning over and variously gesturing towards a rock set heavy in the earth.
She followed his gaze and arched a slow eyebrow.
He smiled and tried to indicate that he understood although he did not.
Instead, he told her it was a nice place.
At the foot of the stairs she explained that two rooms were available to let: one on the second floor, on the half-landing, next to the bathroom, at £320 a month. Bills included, except telephone. There was also an attic room. More expensive, but with a bit of a view. £440 a month, payable on the first. You could see Canary Wharf from it. The bomb that exploded there on 9 February 1996 had rattled their windows.
He liked the sound of the attic. Apex of the triangle. Point of the pyramid. He was becoming increasingly sensitized to incidental symbolism.
She said he might want to glance at it before he decided. He had already decided, but didn’t say so.
Would he like a cup of tea first?
‘It’ll cool you down,’ she said.
He followed her to the kitchen. It was long, high-ceilinged and church-cool. Mauve shadows and cobwebs in high corners. Compared at least to Shepherd’s experience of domestic kitchens, it was seriously disordered. There was a white stoneware sink filled with battered pots and pans, cutlery and mismatched, chipped mugs. A half-glazed wooden door with a cat-flap and near it a litter tray set on a brittle yellow newspaper. There were two litter-dried turds in one corner. The floor tiles were cracked, with a motif faded past legibility: original Victorian, protected for many years by linoleum and vinyl. The grouting was crumbling and one or two see-sawed under his weight. There was a geriatric gas cooker with eye-level grill.
At the scarred oak table sat a gaunt, skinny man with unkempt hair. He wore a ragged pair of army-surplus trousers, a ripped pair of skateboard shoes with no socks, a faded T-shirt. Two plaited leather bands hung about one knobby, thick-veined and hairy wrist. He looked like a once-boyish pop star who, through unusual circumstances, had spent ten years as a prisoner of the Viet Cong.
He was reading a back issue of the
. On the table before him was a blue pub ashtray full of crippled, extinguished rollups, a pack of Old Holborn, some Rizla cigarette papers, several lighters and a scattering of magazines:
There was also an incongruously sleek Apple PowerBook laptop computer, closed down.
From a transistor radio set on the table, Shepherd heard the infinitely consoling intonation of
Just a Minute.
In another life, Andrew Winston Taylor was washing his car or driving to Sainsbury’s, or Ikea. Briefly, he mourned himself: a wave of sadness, rising in the small of his back and breaking just behind his eyes.
The woman said: ‘Lenny, this is Jack. He’s here to see about a room.’
The man glanced up.
Shepherd had the impression they had already met.
Without getting up, the man smiled and offered his hand.
He said: ‘How do you do?’
His voice was a surprising baritone, inflected cockney.
The woman said: ‘I’m Eloise. This is Lenny.’
She went to the cooker, picked up the kettle, went to the sink and manoeuvred the washing-up such that she was able to direct the flow of water into its spout. Then she put the
kettle on to boil. She explained that she owned the house, but didn’t say how she’d come to own it: Shepherd understood that such property, even in a relatively insalubrious area of central London, would cost considerably more than the family home he’d left behind in Bristol.
Rather than convert the house into flats, she and Lenny had decided to let out two rooms to lodgers. Shepherd suspected this had something to do with the avoidance of tax. He approved, although Andrew Taylor would not have.
The attic room was approached via some tremendously rickety stairs rendered life-threatening by darkened, curling carpets that dated to the late 1960s.
Three stairs behind Lenny, Shepherd observed the gnarls of his spine, an ambulatory diagram beneath the washed-out fabric of his T-shirt.
Lenny ducked through the doorway, more through impulse than necessity. Shepherd bent almost double. Inside, he straightened. It smelled, mysteriously, exactly as an attic room should. Shepherd took this as an omen. The centre of the room was high-ceilinged, descending into the eaves, much of which had been converted into crawl-space storage.
Shepherd looked through the window. On the horizon he could see Canary Wharf tower, glittering silver through a white haze of pollution like the distant object of a knightly quest.
He offered six months’ rent in advance, cash, with an additional month’s deposit. He was not invited to sign a tenancy agreement. He checked out of the hotel the same day, transporting what few belongings he had accumulated in two cardboard boxes that fitted easily into a black cab.
Lenny helped him upstairs with one of the boxes, gave him a set of keys. Then he went back to his reading, leaving Shepherd alone to unpack and settle in.
Shepherd set a box on the bed and wrestled open a sash window. It squeaked. He looked out. Breathed in.
He spent a few weeks consolidating his new identity, then making it permanent and semi-official. The brochures from the classified advertisements in the
had advised him to start at the bottom and work up, and this is exactly what he did.