Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed
over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so
Yet another room in
another city, she said scornfully.
Well we are safe at
least; hidden and out of the way.
Safe? You mean you
are safe. What about me?
I shrugged and started to
unpack, and after a few moments I realised that Cheryl had disappeared.
That is the problem with people who arent really there; they come and go
as they please, never finishing an argument or a sentence. But I was right; at
least for the moment I was secure, and nobody could find me.
I love the smell of the
Underground. I am not sure what the aroma actually is; is it the ventilation
system pumping dead around the endless tunnels, or is it the smell of humanity,
past and present, dead and undead?
I walk through the miles
of passageways under the surface of the city, pushing past all these Londoners
hurrying on their way hither and thither. And then I prise myself onto a train,
any train as I dont care where it is going, so long as it is going
somewhere. It is then that I feel most anonymous and safe, sitting in a
carriage with all these people who are so distracted by their own concerns,
that they have no time to worry about anybody else. They pour into the stations
from all corners of the city, pushed together for a few moments, until they
escape into the citys offices and shops, museums and parks, a constant
flow of humanity, never still for more than a few minutes.
I saw somebody I
recognised getting on at Hammersmith, he sat down almost opposite me; smartly
dressed and but pale and looking preoccupied. Where did I know him from? He
seemed very familiar; perhaps somebody from University, or a colleague from the
laboratory back in Manchester. And then a name came to me.
James. He did
not look up, just stared in front of him, oblivious to everything around him. I
called his name again, and several passengers glanced in my direction, but he
continued to look into space, so I left it. Perhaps it was not him after all,
or maybe he was not in the mood for a conversation. I got off at the next stop
and as I meandered around the city I tried to place James, but without success,
and yet I was sure that he was important, the key to my disquiet.
I spend my time in
galleries and museums or walking briskly in Londons varied parks and
gardens. It is November, and a particularly cold one, so I have to keep
moving to stay warm, or find somewhere indoors to stay for an hour or two. I
have my work; writing articles and transcribing data, but it is easy and does
not take up much of my time, and my room is cold and lonely, although sometimes
Cheryl makes an appearance; sitting quietly on the bed so that I do not realise
that she is there until she says something or coughs, and then we talk, or she
stays silent, watching me, before disappearing as quietly as she arrived.
It feels as if I am
continually walking, as if there is no day or night. I constantly pass
the same buildings and look at the same exhibitions, and I am sure that
everyday I bump into the same people, but that would be impossible. And then I
find myself back in my room, although I cannot remember how I got there, and
then to sleep where I am troubled by horrendous dreams.
I saw James again by St.
James, how are you
seemed lost for words, frightened and confused.
How are you? I
Adjusting, it is not
No I suppose
not. I hoped that by talking with him I would remember who he was, but
nothing came to me, it was almost as if I knew him too well. His eyes
constantly wandered as if he were desperate to escape, or he was looking for
We stood in silence; he
had a strange smell about him; as if he had not washed for awhile, despite his
smart appearance and fading good looks, and instinctively I stepped back in
Well I am glad you
He nodded, yeah,
I wanted to ask him who he
was, where I knew him from, but something held me back, and then without a word
he left me, and headed off towards Mansion House Tube Station, not looking
back. I was tempted to follow him, find out where he lived or worked as that
might be a clue, but by the time I had decided to do this he was gone, hidden
by the crowd.
My elderly landlord, Mr
Wyatt, came to see me. He and his wife had rooms on the ground floor, from
which I would invariably hear Radio 4 playing loudly. He looked exhausted and
was panting by the time that he had reached my room two floors up.
I could have come
He shrugged, barely able
to breath, the exercise does me good, anyway it gets me away from my
I laughed, I know
the feeling a man-to-man joke, but he looked at me oddly, as if I had
said something unseemly.
A young woman was
asking after you, he told me, she asked when you would be
Did she give a
thought for a moment, no Denise, definitely Denise.
He sat on my bed and I
thought he was going to tell me more about my mysterious visitor, but after
regaining his breath, he pushed himself back up and headed back downstairs; for
far too long I could hear his laboured, reluctant footsteps heading down the
I stayed awake until one,
reading and then watching television, wondering if this mysterious Denise would
come, but nobody did and then I suppose I must have fallen asleep. Perhaps it
was a mistake; I did not know anyone called Denise (or Diane). Or could it have
been Cheryl, come to find me, to say sorry for all that happened?
James was in Highgate
Cemetery on Saturday; he was with a young girl (too old to be his daughter, too
young to be his girlfriend) looking at George Eliots grave. They seemed
engrossed, but as soon as my back was turned I could sense that they were
looking at me instead. I walked over to them.
Hello James I
The girl moved nearer to
James, at my approach, as if to protect him. She was wearing a rather
old-fashioned dress, as if she had stepped out of the Victorian age.
Hi Andrew. Marian is
showing me some of the sights.
Oh dont you
He looked at me oddly, and
as I could not think of anything to say I gave them a mock bow and wandered
I heard a snigger beside
me as I walked away. I had not heard from Cheryl for a few days, but then she
had never been that talkative even when we were married, or certainly not
towards the end as by then she had been in love with her friend and
was spending all her time either screwing him or telling him how horrible I
moaning. She told me, you would have done the same if you had had
half the chance, but just with more angst and guilt.
I had forgotten how
self-righteous she could be.
And you do not know
who James is do you? She asked with mockery in her voice.
I can almost
remember, but something is stopping me.
She laughed and then
walked away back into the cemetery.
came again. Mr Wyatt told me, The Archers theme tune blaring out behind
policewoman? I suddenly felt scared, as if I had been caught doing
something that I shouldnt have been.
I mentioned her
earlier in the week he said, as he sat back on my bed.
You mentioned a
Yes, a young
policewoman. She had a colleague with her this time, a man, Ross he was called.
They asked you to report to Wood Lane police station.
He gave me a note, I
dont want any trouble; my tenants are good people, we cannot have the
police around here.
Dont worry, it
will just be about my ex-wife I told him, which did not seem to soothe
Metropolitana di Roma,
I arrived in Rome last
Winter with as many of my belongings as I could fit in my two bags.
Everything I left behind no doubt my landlord sold or burnt, but my possessions
didnt seem important, and I didnt miss them. At least Rome has been
warmer, and I feel happier than I have for awhile, although it is not the city
I had known and loved.
I thought someone might
grab me at Gatwick, but my passport appeared to arouse no suspicions, even so
it was only when I left Fiumicino Airport and got into a taxi, that I breathed
properly, and knew I was safe. I did not even quibble over the extortionate
fare. I wanted to tell the driver that I used to live here, that I knew the
ropes, but even though I was safe I did not want to cause a fuss, just head
into the city and stay hidden.
I got an apartment
somewhere pleasant and quiet; marble floors and a large desk on which to work.
You took me here,
for a fortnight. Do you remember?
Yes, an early
holiday. One of our best.
kidding. Cheryl gave a sarcastic laugh meeting all your awful
scientist friends and chatting away in Italian, whilst I was just your wife
sitting in a corner looking pretty and feeling stupid.
What language did
you think they would be speaking in? Japanese? I assumed you knew
Italian, I told her exasperated, it is not a difficult language to
I continued to lie under
my light duvet, the sun pouring in through the blinds, the room like any hotel
room, the same artificial floral smell of cleaning spray. But at least I was in
Rome, the place where I had been happy and young. I got up with a sigh,
and Cheryl walked into the bathroom and when I followed her in there to urinate
she had gone.
Whilst studying Biology at
the Birmingham University I had become friends with an Italian student
Fernando, and after I graduated he told me about a job working in a laboratory
Better than living
in England he told me; tastier food, more sunshine and prettier
women. He was right and I had loved it; the job had been fun and I was
good at it; examining swabs and helping to create antibiotics. And Rome was
beautiful, with new things around every corner, and the people so friendly and
I should have stayed, but
my mother became ill, and so I was given six months leave, but once back in
Manchester I found it hard to return, even though my mother swiftly began to
recover and seemed embarrassed at my coming back just for her. I started a
temporary job, but then it became permanent if I wanted it, and I met Cheryl,
so, reluctantly I wrote to the laboratory to resign. My manager wrote a kind
letter, regretting my leaving and saying that there would always be a job for
me, but the next time I returned to Rome it was as a tourist rather than a
local, and that part of my life was over with.
But could there be a job
for me now? I was free, as free as I had ever been, and I was more experienced
now than then. Surely there would be a place for me. It was true that it was
about fifteen years ago that I had worked there, and that I had not heard from
any of my colleagues for several years now, but it was worth a go. I am sure
that someone would be there who remembered me.
It took me several hours
to find the laboratory, although the journey had always seemed quick and
straightforward. The bus I used to catch no longer appeared to exist, or I
misremembered where I got it from, and I had trouble working out the best
route, it was only after a very long walk and two bus rides that suddenly I
found myself standing in front of my old workplace, although not sure how I had
The large sign outside the
laboratory showed that it was now part of the EMBL group and there was a new
director, it looked much more modern and bigger than when I worked there; more
professional and sleek. I wondered if Fernando was still behind the scenes,
peering at slides and making notes in his meticulous handwriting. I walked to
the entrance, and realised that I did not look particularly smart, certainly
not for Italy, I dont know why I hadnt put on my best suit, or even
bought a new one. I felt self-conscious and out of place.
The guard looked at me
suspiciously as I walked in, I mentioned my old manager, but the guard said he
had never heard of him, nor Fernando, nor the other names that I threw at
Is there somebody I
can see then? I asked, I used to work here.
The guard continued to
look unimpressed, but to get rid of me he scribbled down an email address and
suggested I contact a Signor Sirigu, Head of Recruitment, then dismissed me by
turning to the magazine that he had been reading when I had so rudely disturbed
Chastened, I walked around
the grounds; spacious and almost green, and then I sat on the dry grass and
munched on some unpleasant tasting olives and cheese and watched the young men
and women making use of their break in flirting or sunbathing. I loved the
sounds of Italian and was glad to notice that I could understand most of it.
Eventually I left and once back to my rooms I emailed Signor Sirigu, but the
email came back to me almost immediately, as apparently the address did not
exist, and I could not even find the laboratory on the internet, but then
perhaps it is always a mistake to go back.
A few days later, walking
around the Pantheon I realised I was unhappy; despite this beautiful city I was
bored, and my attempts to locate my friends and colleagues from the past had
failed completely. And Rome seemed a pale shadow of the past; the buildings
barely there, and whereas in the past I would discover new sights everyday, now
I seemed to be following the same paths, unable to venture out anywhere
As I left the Parthenon
there was James drinking from a fountain, and then he poured the water over
himself. It was not the first time I had seen him; I had caught glimpses of him
on the Metro, in the Palazzo Barberini, in the Sistine Galleries. Like me he
looked purposeless, glancing at the art, or scanning the people about as if he
was looking for someone.
As in London I spent most
of my time on the Metropolitana di Roma which I could not remember using when I
was here before. The system was much smaller than the Tube or the Parisian
Metro (although it was in the process of being extended), but I enjoyed
travelling from station to station, the voices on either side of me fast and
Food and water was
beginning to taste unpleasant; I would sip from a fountain and almost vomit at
the taste of something rotten like decomposing meat, or fish. Even when I
bought bottled water it was the same; I had to close my eyes and quickly drink
a gulp of it or I would have died of dehydration, although come to think of it
I was rarely hungry or thirsty, and only drank or ate out of habit.
There was something
funny with the cheese I bought here, I told the woman at the
Gastronomia, it had been the same taste as the water, as if Rome had
been infected by the countless dead from underground. The owner of the shop
gesticulated angrily and told me that nobody else had complained, and then
started shouting that there was nothing wrong with her food, so I hurriedly
left, her angry voice following me out onto the hot street.
I bought cheese, butter,
bread, olives and a bottle of wine at the local supermarket, and back in my
room I made myself a meal and nervously ate. At first it was fine; the olives
salty and plump, the cheese, creamy, but then my mouth was filled with that
same foul taste, and I spat the food out onto the floor and put some toothpaste
in my mouth, but even that was disgusting.
Oh dear said
Cheryl so close that I could feel her warm breath on my neck and smell that
perfume she had started to wear towards the end of our marriage, oh
I am alone in a city whose
name I do not know, where everything is artificial and manmade, even the air
feels processed and stale, and the only light is electric. I walk through
covered streets looking at shops which never close, whilst there is a faint
humming sound, everywhere I go.
I arrived here on impulse
after leaving Rome. The train journey into Germany was unpleasant,
airless and too hot, and the young couple sitting opposite me kept giggling
and, when they thought I wasnt looking, staring at me. And then I saw a
familiar figure come through into my carriage and sit facing away from me.
Minutes later the train drew into a garishly lit station and I grabbed my two
bags and left. As I looked at the departing train, all the passengers were
staring out of the window at me before disappearing into the night.
The station had seemed
empty of humanity; trains pulled in and pulled out, but nobody arrived or left,
and there were no staff, just empty trolleys and automatic ticket machines.
There were no taxis outside, but a moving staircase led to the U-Bahn station,
with pristine trains every five minutes heading into the city centre. On board
there were half a dozen people, all alone, with ear plugs and their eyes
closed. And for the first time I noticed the humming which is everywhere in
this city; not loud, but constant, at the back of everything.
My hotel room is small,
and always a degree or two too hot. I try to open the window, but it is fixed
to the wall. As I lie in bed, there is the glimmer of electricity coming from
outside, and that everlasting hum. Cheryl comes to me; she is naked and
Where am I?
she asks, save me.
But you left
me I tell her as I wake, you found someone else.
She is weeping, and I want
to reach out and comfort her, but when I try to do so, she flinches and draws
back. So I get up and write and then email my reports, wondering if they will
go where I want them to.
I have almost stopped
eating and drinking, just occasionally trying something to see if I can, but
the awful taste is still there, even the dark German bread, which I used to
love is unbearable. But it does not matter, I do not feel hungry or
thirsty, it is as if my body has closed down, I no longer even drink my morning
coffee, even the thought of it revolts me.
I was sitting in a mall,
half-dozing; the seat was uncomfortable and I was constantly trying not to
slide off it, so I sat on the floor which was clean and relatively soft being
made of rubber. I leant my back against the chair and eventually dozed. I could
not remember when I had last slept; maybe two days, maybe two
And there was James, he
was with Cheryl, they were sitting together, holding hands and gazing at each
other in a room I recognised.
You stole my
wife I shouted at him.
He shrugged; she
came to me, she does not belong to you, she never did.
He smiled and they looked
at each other, a private intimate look, and then they both started to scream,
and I woke covered with what felt like sweat.
My back was sore and my
head hurt, and I wanted to go back to England, to see Cheryl, it was as if she
was calling to me, to come back and to make it right. But could it be that
simple? Just as I was, I headed for the train station; something I should have
done a long time ago rather than hiding.
Ross; he was an experienced policeman and had seen some horrendous scenes in
his time, but even so he had the urge to run out of this house and not come
back. His partner Denise came in before he had time to stop her, to
echoed, as she looked at the three bodies and the dark blood. The woman and one
of the men lay on the floor, partially hidden behind by the dining room table;
the chairs they had been sitting on when they had been shot, fallen behind
them. For some reason even more horrendous was the other man, who lay slumped
in a comfortable chair, vomit and saliva down his chest and as dead as the two
people he had killed.
The neighbours were
right said Denise, trying to show that she was okay and calm, they
said she left for somebody else, perhaps they came back to talk it
She heard Ross whimper and
then he pushed past her and she heard him vomit long and loudly
Denise called for help on
her radio. And then she looked at the three bodies and thought of her
boyfriend, who said he loved her, wanted to marry her and have children with
her, and she got out her mobile phone and called him, just to hear his
Cheryl lay in my arms,
I am sorry I
told her, more sorry than you can imagine.
It is okay she
murmured, it is over now.
I kissed her lightly on
the forehead and there was something sticky on my lips and that foul taste
again, and I choked, and couldnt breathe, and her body was cold and
She rose up out of our bed
and, despite the blood, kissed me lightly on the lips, and there was James
stood waiting for her, and they walked away from me, out of sight, talking
happily, whilst I lay unable to move, unable even to