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Authors: Iain Sinclair

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BOOK: Downriver
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II
Riverside Opportunities

‘Let's to terrestrial flesh, or

bid good-night, I thought.

I said, I'm unversed, I said

nor a clerk of nigromantics…'

David Jones,

The Lady of the Pool

The marmosets have gone. Why else would we meet in this place? A graveyard detached from its host: a church tower faking a period grandeur, while its body tumbles wantonly into decay behind corrugated-iron fencing. From the low steps of St John's, Scandrett Street, I mourn the loss of another secret locale. A
temenos
remaining sacred because we do not need to visit it. It is there, and that is enough. The balance in our psychic map of the city is unharmed. But now another disregarded inscape has been noticed and dragged from cyclical time to pragmatic time; has been asked to justify itself.
Shannon Landscapes
are the chosen agents of ‘reality': red bearded, slow-moving giants in check shirts have the renovation contract. The nautical graves are bulldozed, and the sepulchres retained as captive features. The brute undergrowth has been uprooted, and the ghosts put to the torch. The totemic animals have fled.

Marmosets, lemurs, genets, tamarins and sugar gliders were brought ashore, covertly, and traded from public houses along the Highway. Across the tables of the Old Rose bundles were passed. From under stiff seamen's jerseys, small hot lives were drawn, living hearts. The locals adopted them without certificates or rabies clearance, without quarantine. These tamed
exotics enriched their primal soot. Panicked beasts were drawn down into the dark houses, were petted – or pained – to early death.

But some marmosets broke free: forward-thrusting jaws, bark strippers. They were able to tolerate the hostile temperatures. They took cover behind the walls of this graveyard with its fox-mangy London planes, its chestnuts. They cowered among the white blossoms. From the warehouses came the scents of their homeland; from Cinnamon Street, sacked essences. The slow presence of the river chilled their benign hysteria. With their pinched skull-faces and their tufting professorial hair, they resembled a tribe of pygmy Longfords – flinching, purse-lipped from the pain of the world. Delicate human hands fluttered vaporously, or masturbated in absorbed lethargy. The minimum requirement for their survival was a lack of attention. Unseen, they were immortal. And always beneath them, granting them gravity, lay the children of sea captains and merchants: their mouths stopped with shale. Dead daughters, stacked five to the grave, outlasted by some mute father, who will never be able to forgive them their mortality. Bleak histories whose chiselled narratives are fed with lichen. Now, sitting here as the light died, I projected false images of Guiana on to the mustard-colour bricks. I heard the promise of stone cities in their shrill birdlike voices.

But I was not alone in my interest. Juveniles from the tenements, scavengers of the wastelots, netted them, clubbed them, pelted them with stones. Hereditary enemies: killing what they cannot eat. They trapped and sold them. Peeled them for gloves. The marmosets were caged in huts and experimental basements. Mild theoreticians in white coats probed with blades for the sources of memory. Simple tasks were rewarded. Bells rung brought nuts and chocolate drops. Pieces of their brain were cut away. And still the tasks were performed. Further excavations; cells burnt with hot wire. The performance was slower, but it was completed. The skull, finally, was a hollow membrane, lit
by torches: ‘memory' was active – and unlocated. The landscape is destroyed, but the dream of it is everywhere.

I heard the urgent click and drag of Todd Sileen's approach. A troubled leathern creaking, nautical and obscure: like wind in the riggings, or the pull of an unoiled wheel. You felt Sileen's presence, before you could find him. The temperature dropped, and plants died. ‘Baron Saturday', the urchins called him – from a safe distance, crouching, heads in caps, from terror of his unpupilled eye. They saw him in their fevers. He put stones under their tongues. He slept on a mattress of skulls. He cast no shadow. Breathing heavily, he lowered himself on to the step beside me: a damaged manifest. His leg thrown out, stiff as a plank.

‘We're in, boss.' Sileen spoke from the throat: abrupt, punched sentences. He coated each syllable in phlegm, like a craftsman varnishing a dubious ‘Old Master'. His shifty glance checked the corners, frisked me for a hidden microphone. ‘He'll see us at twelve o'clock, “railway time”. One minute out, either way, and the deal's off.'

He pushed himself up. He was away, and motoring. His exaggerated roll – a man dancing on logs – swept him forward at a pace I could hardly match. He cornered on one heel, and hopped over kerbs. But living within a gentle full toss of Wapping Stairs had not helped his style. The damp had got at him, rusted his humour. Too close an association with water has always worked on the physiology of the darker strain of fictional hero. And the lower limbs are the first to suffer. The literary icon finds himself turning, from the feet up, into a carved figurehead. Todd Sileen was another Ahab, a forked man lurching on a single prong. As a skilled carpenter, he might easily have whittled himself a trusty peg – but that was another country, another life. Time was against him. He was against time.

Sileen had a guilty secret: he was gathering about him the works of Joseph Conrad. All of them; every envelope, every (certified) drop of ink.
Why
he was doing this was a thornier
question. Let's skip the psychology and call him a run-of-the-mill headbanger: the kind of pest who sleeps outside the post office to get his catalogue before you do. We were together because he had a use for me. He wanted me, in my capacity as a bona fide crook, to front him; to work the discounts, list the remnants, and speed the duplicates on their way to California.

Whenever Sileen chose to leave this rancid backwater, it would be finished. He was the last human. Scandrett Street would never again be what it was, on this day, in this light, on this square of pavement.

We entered the Cuckoo, Wapping Lane, in an elegiac mood, touching the tables to make sure they were solid; keeping a weather eye on the door, in immediate expectation of a demolition squad. When we had secured our pints and a bowl of depilated prawns, we reviewed our tactics. The public bar was empty; sunlight filtered through the frosted window, picking up the heraldic colours, to spill them, recklessly, over the floor. The moment was eternal: whoever spoke first was damned.

It appeared that one mile downriver, in a studio apartment, Dr Adam Tenbrücke of Narrow Street was hoarding a shelf of Conrads he had painlessly amputated from the David Garnett Collection. Tenbrücke specialized in ‘Judaica'; with sidelines in Holocaust mementoes, the more saline Expressionists, and anything occult, involving ritual sacrifice – preferably human, young, and female. He had his own vineyards on the Rhine, and he always wintered in the Cape. He favoured cigars that might have been rolled in human skin, stitched over a morbid blend of camel dung. He smiled effortlessly, but without meaning.

Tenbrücke had accepted the Conrads, with sighs and shrugs, as part-payment in a currency deal that had gone sour. ‘You cut off a head only once,' he remarked, ‘the gonads you can always squeeze.'

These books meant nothing to him. His price would therefore be impossible to meet. It was the best method of milking some pleasure from the affair. He would hold out until the sweat was
rolling, in steel bearings, down Sileen's neck; until his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. How Sileen knew this, ahead of the event, I could not begin to guess. He did his homework without leaving his fireside. He consulted the messages in the flames. He was inevitably putting the phone back on its cradle as you entered the room. He lived in whispers, behind closed blinds: at midnight, he took to the streets.

Sileen never admitted to owning a car – it was my business to drive him – but now, as we passed one, parked with its nearside wheels on the pavement, he stopped and put a key in its lock. It could have been any car. He seemed to have picked this one simply because he was tired of walking. He was in second gear, and away, before I had worked out how to shut the door.

II

‘This house once belonged to Francis Bacon: a painter.' Tenbrücke brushed aside any formal introductions and began lecturing us, as if we shared
exactly
his sense of the cynicism and venality of the world: a vision he tried, with scrupulous politeness, to mirror in all his dealings. ‘Left nothing behind him. Not a tube of any description, nor a knife. What did he do here? He never lifted a brush. Sat quiet with his back to the window. The river-light modelled his head with an interesting syphilitic effect; the dying claret going green at the edges. He looked as if he had been flayed.'

Sileen and I, side by side, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, sat stiffly on the edge of a merciless Bauhaus shelf; polished leather thongs on an armature of brass. We were auditioning for something. Tenbrücke put a flame-thrower to his Brechtian cigar: with the relish of an interrogator.

‘You don't smoke?' he stated, between slow puffs.

‘Only cigars,' I replied, hopefully.

‘Ah, good. Very good.' Tenbrücke nodded, without passing
the box. ‘You really should try these some time. A little shop in Amsterdam.'

He wanted to show us everything: inscriptions, photographs, woodcuts of dockside crucifixions, autographed menus (authenticated with chicken fat), skulls in the rubble, sabre massacres, caricatures of vast hook-nosed profiteers fellating gold from the enslaved and mesmerized masses. He reared above these boxed and gilt-edged images. He caressed velvet; he fingered, he teased. He slid open drawers with well-rehearsed gestures. He oozed and glistened: his mouth melted with soft metals. He ran his hand inside a closely-buttoned suede waistcoat – a slash of hunting pink – to massage the heart of a slaughtered animal. Sugar-dusted lumps in a silver bowl were pressed on us. Rubber cubes disguising a kernel of pinewood.

‘Saturday afternoons, do you ever visit the Porchester Hall Turkish Baths?' Tenbrücke wasn't ready to give Sileen an opening. ‘It helps to steam Farringdon Road out of the pores, I find. I'm not fit for anything else. I'm too old for Bell Street and Portobello. They're all there.' He laughed. ‘All the faces. Property, Television, Boxing, Snooker. All the agents, the brokers, Tin Pan Alley. Terence Stamp? Of course. Rolex watches? Oysters? Half-price, and better for cash!' He bared his wrist.

Sileen made for the window. He gave up on the shelves of black fetishes. There wasn't a book in the place.

‘Shoes?' Tenbrücke gestured, pleased that he was finally getting to his man. ‘Brogues? You want a nice pair of Church's? Straight from the box. Any size you fancy – as long as it's a ten.' He heaved up a trouser-leg and flashed something bloody and well-bulled at us. I hoped, fervently, we were not moving on to the underwear.

‘A Burberry for the wife? I'm serious.' Tenbrücke mistook Sileen's snarl of rage for a smile. ‘Guess how much? Go on. As new, never worn. On my life, we're not talking “seconds”. A hundred notes? A hundred and fifty? Forget it. Sixty. Sixty
pounds, and I'm down to the garage to open the boot. Did you clock the Merc, on your way up? Nipped over to Germany in the spring. Business and pleasure. Only twelve thou on the dial, and she runs like quicksilver.'

I was beginning to enjoy this, wondering how long Tenbrücke could keep the Sidney Tafler routine going. He was well over the Race Relations limit, and drifting into pure pastiche. But it served its purpose. It turned Sileen into a wolf-man. He was ready to bite.

‘Some advice, boys.' Tenbrücke had nailed his victim to the floor. He was ready to wind up the sideshow. ‘Never buy anything but the best, the brand-leaders. I'm robbing myself, but I'm going to let you walk away with the pair of Burberrys for a oncer. Keep the girlfriend happy, and save the other for your wedding anniversary. This is vital: make sure the ladies in your life take the same size. It stands to reason. Your slag will pay her way in discounts.'

Tenbrücke yawned. And, for a moment, his eyes went dead. Then he took a small ivory box from his desk, and threw back a handful of pills, which he chewed noisily. The box was the real thing. It had cost some narwhal a tusk.

‘Every Saturday, Porchester Row. We hear everything before it begins to happen.' He spoke automatically, like a dying tape. His spirits always sank with the sun, but he was incapable of making a move to bring light to the room. Sileen had won. He had to wait a few moments more: stolid, immovable, but unwilling to be the one to broach the business that was the sole purpose of our visit. Waiting was what Sileen did best. The Thames would freeze before he would be diverted from his self-imposed quest.

Now the combatants battled into the night in a monumental drinking bout. Tenbrücke fought his ‘black dog' mood with cases of sweet yellow German wine. Sileen threw back whatever was put in front of him, grim-jawed, expressionless: the experience seemed, if anything, to sober the man. But, as bottle
succeeded bottle, Tenbrücke's coarse humour was activated. He frisked again. He unlocked cupboards; he fiddled with wall-safes. He laid tissue-leafed folders in Sileen's lap; gently, like virgin brides. Nobody spoke. The world retreated. Remote sounds drifted from the river, as from another empire; muffled by glass and heavy drapes. Sileen could be neither shocked, nor provoked. The etchings were spread on the table in front of him: a dangerous challenge to an already replete gourmet. Men, women, children; freaks and beasts – in every possible combination. A terrible grimoire of possibilities, taken to its logical conclusion. The living savaged the dead. The unborn were mutilated.

Tenbrücke's mouth was liquid with excitement. His pink thyroidal eyes bulged in a net of broken veins. His cigar butt was black with gingivitic drool.

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