>  
 

Last Train

By Steve Sparshott

Memoir

There was a figure on the wrong side of the railing. Hunched, legs dangling over the water, left hand on the edge of the brickwork clutching a smoking cigarette. I kept an eye on him as I passed; he raised the fag to his mouth with a sudden movement, inhaled and put it back down just as abruptly.

These days, Hungerford Bridge is a riot of shiny white suspension poles and pretty blue lights; back then it was a wide railway crossing with a poorly lit walkway stuck on the east side which shook with the passage of trains. The tubes stopped running at midnight so I was on foot, heading down to Waterloo to catch the last train out of London, the 1:05 AM to Surbiton, where I shared a three-storey semi with five friends. I was crossing the last of the bridge’s huge cylindrical brick pilings when I saw the guy sitting there, out on the edge. I walked on a little way, then turned back and watched him swig from a half bottle of vodka. There was nobody else on the bridge. “Alright?” I called. He looked over his shoulder to see an ageing indie kid in a seventies ski jacket.

“Alright, mate,” he replied.

“Admiring the view?” I asked brilliantly, a Friday night’s worth of beer swilling around inside me.

“Something like that,” he said, any implication that I might have asked a really stupid question going right over my head.

“Let’s have a look then,” I said, climbing over the railing and crossing over to sit down next to him, both of us dangling our legs over the Thames. Actually the view wasn’t bad at all, Waterloo Bridge and the buildings on the north and south banks artfully lit and reflected in the water.

Clark (“Like Superman, yeah?”) was a good-looking black bloke in, I guessed, his early twenties, whose girlfriend had just committed suicide. They met at a drop-in centre where they went for methadone and counselling; they hadn’t been together long but he said the relationship had given both of them a lot of much-needed support.

Uh huh.

“So…what happened?” I asked, aware despite the beers that I was in at the deep end of a situation far, far outside my experience.

They had a fight. “But we were always fighting, y’know?” he said.  “Every day.  But this was a big one, and then she killed herself the next day.”

Oh.

Shit.

Even sober I’d have been in no position to offer any expert counsel. What I wheeled out, I realise now, were platitudes; like how she was still living in his memory and if he jumped he wouldn’t just be killing himself and so on. I thought I was being highly original. We shared the vodka and, because I didn’t think it would be clever to say Actually I don’t smoke, a packet of Benson and Hedges.

He stated plainly, early on, that if anyone was around he wasn’t going to jump, so I zipped up my jacket and settled in. The conversation went round several times, returning to different what ifs as he berated himself for inattentiveness, inaction, indecision and so on; always things, I insisted, for which he couldn’t take the blame. Eventually we managed to get onto lighter subject matter; he was surprised that I knew the spike below his lip was called a labret piercing. Common knowledge now, perhaps, but arcane enough back in 1998. One of the few times my trivia reserve proved genuinely useful.

Three hours on, the effects of the beer were compounded by vodka and half a pack of Bensons and, while I could keep talking crap, I couldn’t work out how to get Clark back over to the right side of the railing. I was freezing, and becoming unnerved by the long drop and my increasingly unstable perch.

The few people who came along weren’t much use; the occasional pissed-up group invariably shouting Don’t jump, mate! and a homeless couple who knew Clark from when he lived rough and who confused me by calling him John and saying they’d been in Jerusalem taking pills. Jerusalem’s a big noisy bar in Rathbone Place; I didn’t know that at the time.

About half past four no-one had come by for a while. A couple of girls came stumbling along, arm in arm, singing. They saw us and stopped. “Hello,” said one.

“Morning,” we both replied. One of the girls squinted at us in an exaggerated fashion. “Clark!” she exclaimed.

“It’s Clark, look,” she said, drawing the other’s attention, and they both climbed over the railing. “Come on. Gimme a hug,” she demanded, and Clark stood up and obliged. I’d been trying to work out how to get him away from the edge for three hours; she did it in two seconds.

Who would be the ideal people to turn up just as I was despairing of ever getting Clark to stop contemplating a cold, wet death? (Actually, by this time, a cold, sticky, muddy one). How about a couple of psychiatric nurses (albeit spectacularly drunk ones)? How about a couple of psychiatric nurses who worked at Clark’s drop-in centre? Yes, they’d be just about perfect, and here they were, heading over to the all-night burger van by the station for a cup of tea.

So we joined them, all sitting in a row on a bench, safely inland, drinking impossibly hot tea from polystyrene cups. I can’t remember their names, or what they looked like, or where the drop-in place (open all hours) was, but I remember the four of us piling into a minicab to get there, and I remember watching Clark walk up the brightly lit tree-lined path into the building.

I think that went pretty well.

A few months later I was looking at a copy of The Face; a new 24 hour supermarket had opened near the Complex in Islington and they’d gone in to interview shoppers at about 4 AM. I recognised one of the faces looking out of the page, not smiling but certainly not dead either, labret spike shining.

Who are you?

Clark, 24, unemployed.

What are you buying? (“What was he buying?” people ask.  “Razor blades?”)

Apples.

Apples. So fuck off.

I’m not under the illusion that I saved his life; when I arrived he’d already been sitting looking at the water for a long time. To be honest I’m not really sure what I did, except that it was, in a stumbling, roundabout way, the right thing. The best thing I ever did, in fact. People use that phrase to mean the most personally advantageous thing; buying a villa in Spain, that sort of thing. By best I mean most good; the most…honourable, most decent thing I ever did.

Another time I found a fifty pound note in the gutter as I was heading down towards the river. And I caught the train. Not a villa in Spain, but not bad.

“Visiting London, I always have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless columned porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, together make clear that London is a place where everyone knows his place.

-J.G. Ballard, Airports: Cities of the Future for Blueprint magazine, September 1997

As in every big city, perhaps in every large concentration of human beings, London regards itself as quite considerably more important than everywhere else. Areas within London even posture themselves as somehow superior to their closest bordering neighbours. The same ‘narcissism of minor difference’ is expressed clearly by the amplified hatred of one obscure group of sports fans for their closest neighbouring rivals eg. Liverpool vs. Manchester, New York vs. Boston etc. etc. It’s just another reminder of what a bunch of witless, retrograde animals we actually are, despite all the protestations of highly-evolved, right-brain thinking.

People talk about tiny areas of London as if they’ve magically earned as much a right to a place in the collective consciousness as Sparta or Crete simply by being within the boundaries of the North Circular road. Londoners tend to assume in the listener a detailed geographical grasp of the city, regardless of where they might be from, just as New Yorkers refer to esoteric distinctions in ‘uptown’, ‘midtown’, and ‘downtown’ culture as if they are as intrinsic to human development as the Out of Africa migration patterns of Pleistocene man.

How have the supercilious people of a cold, rainy conurbation in an isolated corner of Northern Europe come to such licence to lord the relative merits of either side of a grey, begrimed river over the rest of the world.

Especially now, it seems that London didn’t get the memo that the system it developed and propagated across the globe has almost no ethical, spiritual or economic currency anymore, anywhere. It’s a situation that makes the half-mast-drainpipe-red-jean brigades look extra-specially ridiculous

Like the revival of the cravat in the early nineteenth century, in the 1980s, and then again in the early 2000s, the choice of that hat looks very much like a ‘top of the economic bell curve’ decision.

It’s very hard to avoid making them. It’s a rare individual that manages to transcend economic determinism, and avoids falling into the trap of thinking that things might be even remotely similar to how they were five, or even three, years ago.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m with this guy, and therefore, with Nicholas Sarkozy:

“That a head of state should allow Eros to plot the trajectory of his life, rather than the travails of the global credit crunch, is so life-affirming it moves me to tears.

-Peter Aspden, Financial Times, August 2, 2008

Neurosyphilis. Recently, in an attempt to keep my brain occupied (read: prevent utter mental paralysis) while my agent shops my novel, I decided to begin researching my next project. So now, instead of lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the terrible economy and my dumb luck to finish writing my book this of all Novembers, I am lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering my awesome luck at being born in twenty-first-century America where no one ever gets neurosyphilis.1

That’s right. Neurosyphilis. I teach early British literature at the local college, and after another semester of teaching Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, for some reason I’m finding myself inexplicably fascinated with the darker side of Tudor England. Picture it. Turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London. A place without antibiotics. Southwark, the red light district.  Where a man strolling out of one of Shakespeare’s plays could walk into a brothel and purchase a woman’s attentions, along with the disease which was known at this time in London as the “French welcome” for the low low price of (that’s right, sir, step right up, sir, she can be yours for) only ten shillings.



Photoa

Picture the scene.

It was the early 90’s.

REM was singing about losing their religion.

President Bill Clinton had appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show, playing sax with the band.

The “Rachel” Friends-style haircut was on the way in.

The mullet haircut was on the way out.

I was on the way out, too.

At that point in my life my San Francisco band and love relationship had crash-and-burned simultaneously.

In response my personal Magnetic North had spun completely out of whack.

My up was down. My down was sideways and backwards.

I was feeling just like the title of that REM album: Out of Time.

I hastily devised escape routes: I’d move to Boston. No. Austin. No. Seattle. No. Athens, Georgia. No.Norman, Oklahoma.

Prior to this time I’d made a few musical connections in LA.

One of those people suggested that before leaving the west coast I check out LA.

Photob

I decided to give it a year. If it worked: great. If not: Anywhere USA here I come.

Very soon I realized the City of Angels was way too sprawling and disconnected for my liking.

I had a hard time making friends.
Had a hard time connecting with musicians.
My car eventually was rear-ended and totaled by a UPS truck on the freeway.

I’d only lasted seven-and-a-half months and already I was screwed. I wanted out. Way out.

The same friend who’d advised me to come to LA now told me she had a friend in London that might be willing to put me up if I wanted out. Way out.

I did.

A few phone calls were made and before I knew it I’d purchased a one-way ticket to London.

Screw America, I thought.

I’d been giving it my heart and soul for years.

Now was time to do the expat thing. Be just like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.

Photoc

Say goodbye to the states, get a band together in London. Then have Uncle Sam get down on his knees to beg me back.

Before I left my homeland for good I hopped a Greyhound back to the East Coast to visit family and friends.

The night before I left for London I visited an old college buddy in New York City.

We proceeded to get seriously wasted.

While stumbling through the East Village, we began spotting these business cards strewn about. They were in gutters, pinned under windshield wipers, pried into doorjambs.

The cards advertised a 1-900 sex phone line.

Each card had a different model on it.

One was African-American. Another Puerto Rican. Still another: Corn-fed White Girl.

They all had pillowy lips and come-hither looks.

Each card had a saying on it.

Something like:

“Sex without the hang-ups.” Or, “Cum closer to hear sex the way it should really be.”

My buddy and I thought the cards were hilarious. We began picking them up, stuffing them into our pockets.

By the end of the evening, I could barely find my money on account of all the sex cards I’d jammed into my jacket.

The next morning I got up early and grabbed my flight out of Newark.

Photod

From there it was expat rock and roll stardom here I come.

On the flight I ended up sitting next to some guy. He was decked-out in a rumpled white button-up shirt with stains beneath the armpits. His glasses were taped across the bridge of his nose. He sported one of those pocket protectors jam-packed with pens and such. His forehead was sweat shiny. His hair was short, greasy and slightly unkempt.

About an hour into our flight he offered to buy me a drink.

I politely declined.

About a half hour later he asked again.

This time I figured what the hell. If I don’t say yes, he’ll just keep bugging me the whole trip. Besides, he seemed harmless enough—albeit a little weird in that Dungeons and Dragons, computer nerd, holed-up recluse kind of way.

The first J.D. and Coke went down nicely.

The second even better.

Photoe

That’s when my seatmate really began talking.

He leaned into me, whispered into my ear:

“Kill one person and you’re called a Murderer. Kill a million people and you’re called a King. Kill everyone on Earth and you’re called a God…”

That one had me practically spitting out my third drink.

“Excuse me?” I said.

His eyes grew wide with delight. “Ever heard of white magic?”

I gulped. “Is that anything like black magic?”

He began spouting out phrases like The Witchcraft Act in 1951; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; neo-paganism; Earth religions; magical religions, pentagrams and the like.

Photof

My head was reeling. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the alcohol, or the fact that I’d been stuck on a Trans-Atlantic flight next to the bastard child of Aleister Crowley.

Photog

“Here,” he said, “check this out.”

From his pocket protector he discretely slipped out a tiny stone dagger.

Photoh

“Pretty cool. Huh?”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure whether that nod was due to genuine curiosity or the fact that I didn’t want to upset a guy who had a knife pointed at me.

“How did you get it past security?” I asked.

He tapped it against my knee.

“It’s stone. Goes right through metal detectors.”

“What are you gonna do with it?” I said. “Use it in some kind of white magic ritual?”

He smiled a wicked smile.

Now things were getting kind of interesting.

“You ever sacrifice anyone?” I said.

He flashed another smile. “Want another drink?”

That was the last thing I needed at that point. If I had any more, I thought, I might risk passing out.

The next thing I knew I’d wake up dead from having my throat slit by a stone dagger.

“That’s cool,” I said. “I’m fine.”

We didn’t talk much after that.

It was only when we’d reached Heathrow that he said as we were deplaning:

“You know, the funny thing is, the way you’re looking like some kind of hippy, and with me looking like I am, I’ll sail right through security, but you won’t.”

At first I thought, Screw You. You’re Full of Shit.

But soon I realized he was right.

Just as we’d reached Heathrow security he was allowed to pass. But I was stopped for interrogation and inspection.

Photoi

Up ahead, I noticed him glance back over his shoulder, and flash one of those I Told You So looks.

Part of me wanted to rat him out.

But another part of me thought fine. This already messed-up world won’t be much different with another white magic nerd lurking about.

The security guards gave me the once over.

They scrutinized my long hair, my straw hat, sleepy eyes, rumpled clothes, and guitar slung over my shoulder.

“Empty your pockets,” one of them said.

Without thinking, I dug down deep, pulled out a wad of something and threw it across the counter.

Tons of those sex cards spilled out.

Puerto Rican girls. Corn-fed White girls. African American girls.

They were everywhere.

Their pillowly lips and come-hither looks were telling one and all to call that 1-900 number for a good time.

The guards scoped out the cards then checked out each other.

“Empty your other pockets,” the same guard said.

More sex cards spilled out.

Asian girls. Hispanic girls. Russian girls.

Now I was really screwed. I’d never make it into London.

Photoj

Thinking fast, I said:

“Oh those cards. Pretty crazy, huh? We Americans are pretty silly.”

I went on to explain how I was a student writing a paper on the commercialization of sex in the U.S.

I’m not sure whether they bought it, or if they just felt sorry for me, or if they just wanted to get rid of me so they could gather up those cards and start making some long distance booty calls.

Either way, they let me go.

I was officially off American soil and had my whole expat rock-and-roll fantasy waiting for me just beyond those airport doors.

But I was minus about sixty sexy girls in tow.


Authors Note: I’d like thank fellow TNB writer Jen Burke for her keen observations and editorial assistance while creating this post.