This is a work of fiction and depicts a London that no longer exists. Thank goodness that the nation’s capital is now such a diverse and culturally enriched metropolis of civilization.
On a day in April 1977, the same day that German Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback and his driver were shot by two Red Army Faction members in Karlsruhe, a young woman left Tottenham Court Underground Station and walked down Soho Street to Soho Square. The Curzon Cinema on Shaftsbury Avenue was showing “The Eagle Has Landed.” The private cinema on Romilly Street was showing “Swedish Nympho Slaves.” A cold front had moved south with accompanying winds, but the streets were dry and her overcoat blew open. She was wearing a short skirt and diaphanous blouse. The cold wind was nipple stiffening.
The woman pulled the coat close round her thin, almost emaciated body and screwed her eyes shut against the dust and papers blowing off the grubby streets. She was cold, tired and her weary eyes were ringed by dark circles. Her hair was dry from over-dying and her skin was red and flaky due to a poor diet. She scurried up Waldour Mews to the back door of the club and let herself in with the steel door’s turnkey. As she went down the three flights of stairs she was assailed by that well-known reek of stale beer and cigarette smoke. As she descended down to the basement club, she wondered as she often did, how they would get out if there was a fire, deciding that she didn’t care. She hung up her coat in the area behind the bar that comprised the cellar and what was laughingly referred to as the “dressing rooms.”
The Hoplite Club was nearly empty, it being a Thursday and the few punters were more interested in getting pissed than watching the two “girls” on the stage going through their routine with a bored distraction. They were slouching around on the small stage to Van McCoy’s The Shuffle. It was still late afternoon so although their ample breasts swung ponderously to the music in a way Mr McCoy had never intended, their sequinned G-strings stayed on. Empty eyes looked at the glitter ball on the ceiling, as though life’s meaning lay there.
The woman poked her head round the curtained door off the bar to the back of the club and caught the attention of the West Indian barman, “Is Mick the Greek in, Chalky?” she asked.
The black man looked round and smiled in genuine friendliness, his teeth impossibly white and his gums even more impossibly baby pink.
“Hello, Cyn’ love. He popped out, said he had an errand to do. Putting on a bet more like.” He loved Cynthia in a way she would find impossible to comprehend. She loved Chalky in a different way and his affections would forever remain unrequited.
It would be impossible for today’s generation, drowning in the cess-pit of political correctness to understand the way what is now regarded as casual racism, was accepted in the 1970s. I suspect that even those of us who were around in the 70s would be shocked if we watched Love thy Neighbour again. What a long way we’ve come. We wouldn’t dare of saying such hateful things to people. We just actually do them instead.
“Quiet now isn’t it?” she observed watching the distracted punters.
He smiled, “Until you shake your little arse, eh Cyn?”
She grinned, but knew that she felt as well as looked terrible. She hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days. Her nose was running and the backs of her legs and her knees ached as though she was coming down with flu. She badly needed a fix.
“Why don’t you have a cuppa before you get ready?” he said in a kindly, concerned way, “Lots of sugar then you can pile on the old slap.”
He was discreetly saying that she needed to do something before the night’s performance because she looked terrible. Apart from the eyes, hair and skin, the track lines on her thin arms were becoming noticeable and there was an infected ulcer on her inner left arm. Cynthia made herself a cup of tea with lots of sugar and went into the changing room. The two “girls” were off the stage and changing into their street clothes to supplement their earnings that night. Cynthia wasn’t at that stage yet, but as she looked at herself in the fly-blown mirror, she asked her reflection what had become of the fresh-faced seventeen-year-old who had stepped off the train in Paddington in 1969. The one with a promising modelling and photographic career ahead of her.
Mick the Greek came back about seven that evening and she was desperate to see him. Mick went straight into his office with the huge, two way mirror where he could watch the girls getting changed. When she first started working at the club, Cynthia had thought it strange and rather pervy, but now it was part-and-parcel of her decadent life. She knocked on the door and went straight into Mick’s office. He had his back to the door and the safe opposite was open. Mick was putting wads of fivers into the safe.
“Why don’t you just fackin’ come in Cyn?” he snapped at her on turning round.
Mick the Greek was wearing his Savile Row suit that may have been trendy when he was hobnobbing with the Krays, ten years earlier. Now it was faded and stretched across Mick’s ample paunch. His bow tie was as greasy as his hair, but he liked to think he still had what it took, and he still made lots of money.
“Mick, I need Horse and I need it badly,” she said without preamble, cutting straight to the chase.
“The Apothecary is proving rather difficult to get hold of at the moment. You are running up rather a tab which is concerning, so I will need you to fack me, Cyn.”
“If you want me to perform tonight, Mick, I’ll need something to get me through it.”
“Your friend may well be popping in later tonight. We have one of Her Majesty’s ships docked in the Pool at the moment and I’ve been scattering complementary tickets like confetti. The Apothecary rather fancies getting a lot of new business tonight.”
“I need it now, Mick. No Horse, no fucking show! Of any kind.”
Mick looked across his desk at her. She had been lovely beyond measure when she first went into the club, but the late nights and heroin had taken their toll. That notwithstanding, she was still eminently fuckable. He opened his top drawer and tossed a small, clear package across to her.
“This Dust should see you through until the Apothecary pitches up.”
“I don’t like Coke. It really hurts my sinuses and your stage will be covered with snot.”
“Rub it on your gums. Just a little at a time. It’s what the racing drivers do. Now get your kit off…”
The club was heaving by the time Miss Sin was ready to take the stage. Mick the Greek’s touts had done a good job and the bar area was packed with the Royal Navy’s finest from the Leander Class frigate docked in the Pool of London. There was a healthy contingent from Heriot-Watt University’s rugby club and already the Rugby-Uni boys were sparking off with the Royal Navy’s finest. Chalky and his lovely female assistant with the bathycolpian delights were run off their feet. The punters were paying over a quid a pint, and Mick grinned, tucked away in the darkness. Cyn was so bloody good on so many levels.
Cynthia was euphoric with boundless energy when she hit the lights, wearing a traffic wardens uniform. The opening bass beats of Billy Ocean’s Red Light Spells Danger boomed out from the PA system, as she entered stage left with a notebook, licking the pencil suggestively. Cynthia scrubbed up very nicely with some slap. The boys in the bear pit howled their appreciation. In the next set she was wearing a hoola skirt and beads, swaying suggestively to Heatwave’s Boogie Nights. The thong came off and the string of beads was utilised in an entirely inappropriate manner. Mick thought they would blow off the roof.
In the interval between the sets, she rubbed more of Mick’s Dust on her gums, but she was still desperate for the heroin. The lights were so bright they hurt her eyes. She saw Chalky look away from her nudity with sad embarrassment but she didn’t care. They loved her and the aching legs had gone. The bar was besieged by matelots and rugby aficionados. Invariably there were tense moments between the two diametrically different groups. At the moment it was good natured.
The second set kicked off with Andrew Gold’s Lonely Boy. She was dressed as a schoolboy, complete with blazer, shorts and a rather fetching cap. Freckles had been heavily applied and a catapult stuck out of the pocket of her shorts. By the time Andrew Gold’s Lonely Boy had left home on a winter’s day in 1969, the first glass had been nudged, the first beer spilled and the first punch thrown. Mick the Greek’s bouncers moved in like a Prison Officer MUFTI team. A Prop Forward and an Operator Maintainer were up the stairs and out into the back alley with the bins and extensive bleeding, like corks out of Champaign bottles. They pulled themselves to their feet at around the same time and supported each other like lifelong friends, blood and mucus dripping from their mouths and noses. Two men from different classes united in a common British pastime, getting pissed and fighting.
The applause was still deafening when the Apothecary slipped almost unnoticed into the club. Mick shimmied over to him and they exchanged a subtle handshake.
“You got some Horse for my Golden Girl?”
The Apothecary nodded, “But it’s potentially hot stuff from a new supplier.”
“Put it on my tab this time. Cyn’s done me a favour.”
The Apothecary looked at Mick with a mixture of doubt and envy, “Then she truly is on the slippery slope.”
“Fack you,” Mick said, “She can’t keep her hands off me.”
Cyn’s final set was to Glen Campbell’s Southern Nights and she was dressed as the sluttiest cowgirl you could ever wish to meet. She treated the frenzied punters to a close up and personal view of her perineum on the edge of the stage at the culmination of her act. As he watched the heaving heads of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and the finest of the British university system, Mick gave silent thanks that he had had the good sense to flee Northern Cyprus before the Turks arrived. He sought out Cynthia after the show and slipped her the package.
“This one’s on me, Cyn. You were facking good tonight. The best.”
She sniffed, “Never again, Mick.”
“We’ll see, love. We’ll see.”
She barely remembered the tube trip back to her grotty flat in Blackwall, just another creature of the night and what beautiful music she made. Her heart was pounding as she prepared the heroin and tried to find a viable vein. In the end she gave up and injected between her toes. It took a long time for the intense rush to hit and she came, as she invariably did. Her heart rate slowed with the intense pleasure that swept over her as she forgot everything. But the cocaine was wearing off and her heart rate and breathing slowed further. The syringe fell out of her lifeless hand and she looked up at the pool of light above the cheap wardrobe. She was drawn towards it and closed her eyes.
He came out of the light in a confused state. He had been looking down at himself being worked on by the crash team, but now he seemed to be sitting on the top of a cheap wardrobe in an insalubrious bedsit. He was looking at a girl slumped across a bed, naked apart from a pair of tanga pants. She had pissed herself.
Oh great! Just my luck, he thought and came down to step on a hypodermic syringe. Oh shit.
For some reason, he knew that this young woman was vitally important to his continued existence. He sat on the bed and shook her.
She groaned but made no movement or opened her eyes. He felt for the carotid pulse in her neck. It was very faint and slow. He looked at her body. Very pleasant apart from the mess of her arms. Oh Christ, a fucking junkie. He shook her again.
“Leave me alone,” she murmured, “I want to die.”
“Well I don’t. Wake up you bitch.”
He picked up the phone but the line was dead because she had been disconnected He reckoned that by the time he went and phoned for an ambulance and got back, she would have gone. He didn’t even know where he was. He pulled her up. But she slumped back, floppy, like dead meat. He tried to remember the month’s training as a combat medic he had spent in that Birmingham A&E department. Plenty of drugs there, but he had nothing here. What did he need to prevent cardiac and respiratory depression? Stimulus. A shock. He carried her into the shower and toilet cubical and dumped her in the shower basin. She was so light, nothing of substance. He turned on the cold water, full blast. She opened her eyes and gasped, staring at him with terror. He turned off the shower.
“You have to stay awake. If you fall asleep you will die and so will I.”
“I want to die.”
He turned on the shower again and she started sobbing, trying to avoid the water.
“Do I have your attention now?”
He picked her up and carried her back to the bed. He found a towel and dried her vigorously, rubbing hard to get the blood flowing.
“What’s your name?”
She closed her eyes, drifting off so he shook her.
“Cynthia, Cynthia Penrith.”
“Where are we?”
He looked round the flat, struck by just how unfamiliar everything was, “What year is this?”
She giggled and closed her eyes, so he shook her again.
“Christ,” he said, “What the hell is going on?”
She had slipped into a dream-like state again and he looked round the bedsit. Coffee, lots of it, strong. The kettle was whistling on the electric hob. He couldn’t remember putting it on. He found a tin of coffee, Maxwell House. Yuck. Four table spoons should do it. He filled the mug with a mixture of boiling water and cold water from the tap, then heaved her upright.
“Wakey-wakey Cynthia. Time for your medicine.”
He pinched her nose and poured a third of the coffee down her throat. She gagged and some came back up, but most went down. She shuddered and then vomited coffee and bile on his lap.
“Thanks. But you’re not getting away with it that easily,” More coffee went down her neck and although she shuddered again, this time it stayed down.
She groaned and her head lolled forward to his shoulder. He knew that it was going to be a long night.
“Right, lady. I’ve got to keep you alive because if you get the mallet, then so do I. I don’t know why that should be the case. It just is. No sleeping until that shit you’ve injected is out of your system.”
He could feel her heart beating slowly and weakly against his chest like a dying bird, “Right, we’ll start with weapon handling drills for the SLR…”
What seemed like hours later, the little folding travel clock on the bedside table said it was 1:45 and he knew it was the small hours of the morning.
“Right, now listen! The rifle fires one or two more rounds, then stops again. Come on!”
“Cock, hook and look,” she slurred without opening her eyes. He shook her.
“No for fucks sake, that’s the IA drill for the SLR. We’re on the L85. The clue is one or two more rounds then stops again. It’s a fucking gas stoppage. What are you going to do?
“Apply safety catch and set the gas plug to emergency,” she murmured slowly and dribbled.
“Good. Now talk me through the stripping and cleaning of the weapon. What size of flannelette should I use with the pull-through?”
By 3:30am it was the kings and queens of England, “Right, we’ve had Henry the VII and Henry VIII. Who came next?”
“Elizabeth the Ist.”
“No you stupid Doris! It was Edward the VI followed briefly by Lady Jane Grey…”
At 4:50am she opened her eyes and looked at him, “I don’t want to do any more capitals of the world. You’re driving me mad.”
Somehow he knew that the worst was over and he cuddled her. She nuzzled up to him, the first time for so many years that she had been intimate with another human being without there being a sexual element. She drew back to get a look at him for the first time. He was a middle-aged man with a short beard and long, prematurely grey hair. He had a hard, brutal face with a broken and badly set nose. But it was the harsh, jagged scar on his forehead that was most frightening.
“Are you my guardian angel?” she asked and then giggled, “It’s not very likely is it?”
He thought about it for quite a while and then everything suddenly fell into place. He could now make sense of the impossible.
“No,” he said as the realisation hit him like a sledgehammer, “but I think you could be mine.”
She wrinkled her nose, “You’re silly. What’s your name?”
“That’s a silly name. Will you stay with me, Edge?”
He felt an agonizing blast go through his brain and knew that his time here was finished, “No. I have to go back.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“Yes. In thirty-three years.”
“I’ll be dead by then.”
“You won’t, but you’ll have lots of regrets and so will I.”
“Bye, Edge. You’re a bloody ugly guardian angel,” she said and fell into a sleep he knew she would wake up from.
“And you’ll be a bloody ugly cat minder,” he said gently and returned to his own body, the bright lights of the emergency room and the pain…
More from Blown Periphery here.