Authors: Jake Wallis Simons
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd.
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Copyright Â© Jake Wallis Simons 2014
The moral right of Jake Wallis Simons to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 978 1 84697 280 5
eBook ISBN 978 0 85790 783 7
Typeset by Hewer Text (UK) Ltd
For my grandfather
Tony âGramps' Simons (1922â2012)
who loved cars almost as much
as he loved a good story
The day was closing. The world was revolving gently, easing a new portion of its surface to the sun; London was moving along with it, towards the great darkness. Shadows were puddling under trees, stretching out from buildings, carpeting the streets. On the southern flank of Trafalgar Square, at the foot of the statue of King Charles I â which for centuries had been considered the dead centre of London, from which all signposts were measured â a young man covered his eyes before opening an email on his phone. If it was a rejection, well, he'd be sunk. A third of a mile away, a dog looked up at the Cenotaph. On Waterloo Bridge, a middle-aged gentleman chewed his fingernail to the rhythm of a dreadlocked busker's bongos, snipped it clean, and flicked it spiralling, a tiny comma, over the side. A woman from Leeds, struggling with a broken high heel, was late for a trip on the London Eye that was paid for by her clients, and arrived to see familiar faces looking at her from the oval capsule as it arced away into the gloaming. In Gordon's Wine Bar on the Embankment, a manic-depressive discovered he had won Â£210 on the National Lottery. Although it was a Sunday, the occupants of an entire floor of Slaughter & May, which inhabited the grand building at Number One Bunhill Row, were still at work; a dispute between two mobile phone giants had entered a critical phase. In the suburbs, a million kettles were being boiled. People everywhere were looking out of their windows, drawing their curtains against the gathering night.
Suppers were cooking. In Marylebone, a woman suffering the onset of flu opened a can of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup to
remind herself of her childhood. In Southwark, a man heated up a Waitrose Lamb Rogan Josh and strummed his fingers on the microwave. A fifteen-year-old behind Elephant & Castle Station â whose mother, at home, was cooking a chicken â gasped as a knife slipped between his ribs. A child fell over: the pause before the howl. In St Wilfrid's Residential Home, Chelsea, an old lady who had worked as a codebreaker during the war let out her final breath. On the seventeenth floor of the Royal Free Hospital, through the windows of which a vista of the city could be seen, a nurse was forced to wait a full fifteen minutes until a lift arrived to carry her down for her break. In Fortune Green, a schoolboy, who had been thinking all day about becoming a Gooner, decided to join the army. An estate agent arrived home to an empty house. His broadband, for some reason, was down. The Prime Minister misbuttoned his coat; a baby began life in a taxi on the Goldhawk Road; a chicken nugget fell to the ground; a young man who had once grown a moustache for charity cut up his credit card with a blunt pair of scissors. An obese resident of Bromley, face bleached by the light of the television, changed the channel, then changed it back again. An escort, on the way to her last job, climbed the stairs of a Twickenham hotel. People texted and tweeted and emailed and Skyped, texted and tweeted and emailed and Skyped. People ignored these messages. Everywhere immigrants strived; everywhere crime seethed; everywhere people were eating, drinking, flushing, fucking; everywhere people made supplications to a variety of gods.
Such was the wormery of London, encircled like a fortress by the sluggish moat of the Orbital, which, now and at any time of the day, was grey, and relentlessly so, though spangled with millions of headlights. A tail-eating Thames, straining against itself while vehicles in their millions ghosted past in a pageant of colours, with all the randomness of fish against the monochrome of the ocean. The M25 had no beginning, no end, and did not go anywhere but back, eventually, where it was. This was an environment one would endure to reach one's destination quickly,
nothing more; land for passing through; a dream which, upon awakening, could only be remembered in fragments, each identical to the others, and all so unremarkable that they were soon forgotten. The London Orbital, although scoring through 117 miles of Britain, lay on the surface of the earth like a snakeskin, as if one day it might be scraped up and discarded.
But: as the sun turned copper, the traffic began to slow. Drivers, squeezing their brakes, created scarlet constellations of warning. Something had happened. A tumour developed, hundreds of living cells amid gauzes of exhaust. Got to be an accident, said the driver of a Mazda MX5 to his wife, who was reading something on an iPad; she was hoping to make partner at her law firm, hoping to be the second female this year. Shall we turn off? Or sit tight? Several cars behind, a woman who had grown up on an army base outside Berlin said, hope there hasn't been an accident or anything. Dad? But he was asleep. A motorbike passed them, weaving its way along the queue, the driver turning his antlike helmet. A group of teenagers watched it as the bass-notes of their hip-hop thumped in their souped-up Corsa. One of them tweeted. A mile back, on the seat of a BMW, a woman wearing man's clothing slept uncomfortably, her face pinched into a frown as if gripping her burden even in sleep. In the next lane, a man who still thought of himself as young cursed his irritable bowels. The van behind: two men in leather jackets â the first had the face of a schoolboy, the second looked more like his mother than his father â were speaking on their mobiles, each in a different language. One of them knew in passing the man with the irritable bowels, though they were not on first-name terms. Two exits behind, in the front seat of a Honda FR-V, a man, fearing he was too old to be a parent, peered over at the two slumbering toddlers in the back seat, between whom was an empty packet of sweets, and said, just when the little monkeys had finally conked out, Jesus. Keep the engine running, his third wife replied. Behind them, a container lorry loomed. The driver, who had a broad and pallid forehead,
spread a tabloid across the steering wheel and rubbed his chin. He'd promised the missus he'd do WeightWatchers, but not done anything about it. The song âDancing Queen' was going round in his head, he couldn't get it out. Will be late home now, pain in the arse what with Sue's operation in the morning. Sod's law.
Feel the beat from the tambourine
. Fancy some bacon.
Standstill. The sky was tarnishing as black-winged night accelerated its descent. Over the swarms of grubby, gleaming machines, a fug of fumes sighed.
Max and Ursula
âThis'll clear soon,' said Ursula. âDon't you think?'
âIt's all I need,' said Max, heaving up the handbrake in his meaty fist. âFucking pain in the arse.'
Ursula didn't respond. She was looking out of the window at the city of vehicles that had sprung up around them. They were in the middle lane, flanked on one side â as she often thought â by the daredevils, and on the other by the meek. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. When did cars get like this? It felt like the last time she looked they were made of rectangles, squares, lines. Now it was all ovals and bulges and curves. Cartoon bugs.
âWhen did cars get like this?'
âYou know, all buglike. All rounded. Like sucked sweets or something. Jelly Babies. Sucked Jelly Babies.'
Max didn't respond. He tended to ignore his wife's remarks when they didn't make sense. He was an IT consultant, a systems analyst; he couldn't relate to her when she was in this sort of mood. Cars like Jelly Babies.
âI mean, if you didn't know,' said Ursula, âyou'd have thought we were all in capsules.'
âIf you were an alien.'
âWell, you're not,' said Max. âAt least, I'm not.'
It never used to be like this. Not when they first met, not even in the first years of their marriage. They used to have a lot in common. When had it started, then? Like this?
âI told you it was stupid to drive back to London on a Sunday evening,' said Max. âI knew it would be like this.'
âI suppose even our car probably looks like a sucked sweet, if you think about it,' said Ursula. âThey used to be all boxy and sort of friendly. Now they're like jelly moulds. You turn around and everything's changed.'
Max didn't respond.
They were sitting in the womb of a Chrysler Voyager, a car which, Ursula now thought, looked like it had been inflated with a bicycle pump. It was four years old; they had bought it when Carly was born. Carly was sitting in the back of the vehicle, in the sixth of its seven seats, on her booster seat, leafing restlessly through
Where the Wild Things Are
and talking to herself. She was a good girl, generally, and charming; Max's black and Ursula's white had given her toffee afro hair, light brown skin and â Max thought â eyes like the first light of dawn on a freshly laundered tablecloth. Next to her, in the fifth seat, was Bonnie, her friend from pre-school, a blonde and freckled girl with a perpetual stickiness about her, who was asleep, one hand clutching a doll, the other resting in a packet of crisps.
Ursula and Max knew the Chrysler had been a mistake, a result of the heightened state of excitement that had gripped them upon Carly's birth. We'll need something with a bit of space, they had said. A family car. For all the kit. And for when we have more children. But now that Carly was four, there wasn't so much in the way of kit. Or more children.
âYou all right in the back?' said Ursula, twisting round in her seat. âYou all right, Carly?' No response.
âNo news is good news,' said Max. âShe looks all right in the mirror. Bonnie's asleep. Thank God. Better let sleeping dogs lie.'
âIf this goes on much longer, we'll have to call her parents,' said Ursula. âThey'll be worried.'
âI haven't got a signal,' said Max. âFucking mobile's useless.'
âMe neither,' said Ursula, looking at her handset. âI got the sim-only deal from you, remember. Same network.'
âYou can't blame me for everything.'