Chapter 1 – Lost in Wandsworth
I could be mistaken. Maybe it’s the waft of stale methane – an exit-wound from Wandsworth’s finest Indian cuisine, “The Chutney” – or an afternoon’s fill of £4.00 Camden Town Chinese buffet repeating through the blur of an evening’s binge of tequila-tickled beers, two-for-one Desperado’s staggered back-to-back with the premature Christmas spice from a barrage of “Jägerbomb’s” loaded with Red Bull bullets. I could be mistaken; but something certainly doesn’t smell right.
Or perhaps this is the standard, stale must of the N87 Night Bus. In either case, with an unfamiliarity of London’s common city aromas and our ill-experience of its foreign streets, panic descends upon three steadily composing drunks, creeping, threatening like the scornful glare of an unwelcomed dawn. In fairness we are not the only intoxicated souls commuting at 2.30am, having missed the last tube connections, and further to our credit we aren’t entirely doubled over as are a good few comatose passengers resembling the artist formerly known as ‘Prince’ (or currently known as the aforementioned) in the act of self-fellatio. We are, however, three Cornish boys whose rural roots afford no redemption from an utter failure to navigate a return route to our Wandsworth lodgings where a nomadic refuge – backpacks, sleeping-bags, couches and a lonely goldfish – awaits.
Now, we can suggest that comedy occurs only inasmuch as the anecdote does not overtly challenge or destabilise either beliefs which formulate world views or reflexive understandings of ‘self’ – those conscious and subconscious narratives concerning who, why, and what we are – or when it is simply jovial, tongue-in-cheek, slapstick jest; ‘taking the piss’. There is equilibrium, harmonised qi, yin and yang: complementary and infinitum. It takes, however, only particular actions, words or images to begin feeling the tug from under one’s feet: it is a rug woven from an ephemeral mesh of understandings we feel no need to understand; concepts but a failure to conceptualise. For a brief moment we are forced to realise that the rafts upon which we navigate the vast, ultimately barren, oceans of existential meaning are crafted from no more than waste paper and toothpicks, always steadily disintegrating, always being re-patched and bailed out. The result is nervous laughter, a sideways glance; introverted shame.
By the same token, being lost is funny until you finally take notice of the elephant on the bus – that you’re completely fucking lost. The world feels a lot larger, your sense of independence a lot weaker, the stench of stale perspiration much stronger and your balls an awful lot smaller. Standing in a circle at the front of the midnight express we struggle to grasp glimpses at each suspect stop, all the meanwhile slipping sideways glances at one another hoping that the other, and not one, may have noticed landmarks to our salvation from a night of homelessness on a dark London street. But it is a hopeless Penrose’ stairs as we pass vacant looks round and round in a circle, round and round like the microphone at a too-sober karaoke venue. Nervous humor turns to dry panic; you wish you had military training to remember. One would imagine children in the Republic of Congo are never lost.
A brief interjection: if you feel this reflective commentary of our predicament a little excessive I will add for consideration that this was by no means the first fail of our penultimate evening in London before embarking on our extended Asian excursion; we had set ourselves far from good mental (and I wouldn’t rule out emotional) stead for the months to come.
Earlier in the night our initial inability to meet the last train from Camden Town (intoxication shall ever be the enemy of calculated time) afforded us the novel opportunity of using our newly accrued ‘Oyster’ cards and navigating the trails of the night buses, the shuttles whose neon lights snaked through spot-lit streets like a long-exposure snap from an overpriced SLR. It would be an adventurous novelty epilogue to an enjoyable night with close friends and loved ones.
We never did quite manage that first night bus. And it wasn’t until waiting thirty numbing November minutes that we boarded the midnight N87, only to be apprehended by red lights and an abrasive buzz which seemed to lack only “and our survey said!” as a prefix. We had scored zero. It quickly came to our attention that our Oyster Card credit had expired after fannying around in and out of tube-station turnstiles failing to distinguish entrances from exits: the confusion of the ‘human centipede’ trying to fathom its ass from its mouth.
Forgive or forget the vulgarities, it is simply that despite my efforts to conduct ‘respectable’ prose vocabulary buckles under emotions uncontrollable as I reminisce. Habit has found that words soon spot, swell and burst, erupting in a tide of tourettes. I have come to acknowledge these outbursts as geysers of visceral emotion; a gasket bursting under a brief realisation of the inadequacy of words in an attempt to describe feelings which are skin, sinew, guts and bones. They are significant in their organicity, especially in recollecting the numerous ‘colourful’ experiences of those nomadic months. They are grout in the gutter of the pages and shan’t be abandoned for the mere sake of a clean tongue.
From our journey’s genesis we had been let down. A bus driver is not only a transportation officer; they are a public servant, paid to serve, to be subordinate. It is therefore an individual you should hope to entrust yourself during times of dire commutation-related need, at which point you are reassured in the social (and somewhat moral) ‘given’ that an appointed job will be wholeheartedly performed under the faith of the commercial labour exchange. To the contrary, we were offered no paddle. Yes, like many before my time, I have been tormented and abused repeatedly by various governmental, financial, and social institutions. It is to be expected. But to be waved out onto a dark London street two miles in the wrong direction with a careless smile on the face of a working-class bus-conductor leads my faith in humanity to wane. At home, in Cornwall, bus drivers are the nicest people in the world, providing you refrain from pressing the emergency engine stop button located at the bumper forcing them into chase as a friend robs the change in the till. During one of my most intimate encounter with a bus driver, I called him a wanker as he chased me around the bus, my brother already half-way home with the silvers and pound coins.
Interestingly, the driver’s retort was a bet that I ‘couldn’t even wank properly’. Thieving circumstances regardless, I couldn’t help but shake a sense of the sinister in his choice of comeback to an eleven year-old boy, though I probably had indeed found myself on the cusp of pubescence pounding away at a raw nub with the onset of hormonal changes in my pants. Maybe I was lucky to escape with my asshole as well as my left hand. The more I think of it, I can’t help but feel that karma had caught up with me twelve years late on this public transport-related occasion. Regardless, wank or no wank, a sadistic part in all of us loves to fuck someone else over, and everyone loves to fuck over a drunk. Behind the bar, I have heard it called ‘twat tax’. Keep your ears peeled.
We didn’t spend long on the streets after disembarking the N87. There’s only so long you can squeeze your sphincter under the fear of forced entry before the lactic acid builds and there is trouble distinguishing the nature of the burn. We stop into a 24/7 shop owned by an Indian man selling various overpriced tinned, canned and foil-packet goods, finding solace in the familiarity of blind-consumerism. A plethora of crisp packets and energy drinks later and we resign our attempts at orienteering, find the nearest bus stop, and wait for the next N87 to pass. Obedient to the point of pity we pay another fare feeling like domestic abuse victim returning to a hostile home as we traipsed back onboard with flaccid tails. It was always our fault; a good British wife beater always blames his victim. Pull up a glass and ear to the asbestos wafer walls of any wholesome council flat: “Why’d’ya mayke me doo eet?! You fink I enjoy dis?! You mayke me doo eet!” Crash. Bang. Wallop.
Another brief interjection: I would like to maintain that I have never condoned or participated in domestic violence. There’s more than enough space outside.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about the disturbing comfort I found in that familiar odious musk as we re-embarked the fluorescently lit public transporter, that pissy-old-man aroma one would imagine from ammonia cleaning agent uncapped in a charity shop. I can only assume such detergents have their uses in the sterilization of stale piss stains left in the wake of incontinence, an increased likeliness on the trails of an elderly pickle’s thoroughfare. Exotic aromas aside, it was a sadistic, begrudged comfort akin to that of the morbidly obese for a battered stick of butter. I was ready to admit that this was by no means our finest hour.
There is a reason people find catharsis in intoxication; it relieves. It relieves from obligation and responsibility, both toward oneself and from the expectations which culminate social acceptance. With an empty tank, the curtain draws: realisation, a sinister and unwelcomed sense of presence, of being present, and of those vulnerabilities and insecurities which are innate. We were lost in Wandsworth on the first leg of a journey of leagues, and of utmost concern we were sobering. Rapidly.