The pickaxe scrapes and drags. Iron grates on rock, scratches, chimes on stone. But, even so, Steve can still hear some smug pillock yabbering on the radio.
“… back in Roman times, I think you’ll find, the River Walbrook was London’s waterway of choice…”
“Think you’ll find?” Steve snarls, stopping work to heckle. “How exactly? In a tardis?”
He laughs at the quickness of his wit, but there’s no one else here to appreciate it and his mood soon sours as this tosser bangs on about London’s lost rivers. Where on earth do they find these morons, he wonders. The pick lands heavily, chips of Victorian cement spurt up from the floor. Is there a talent agency for know-alls somewhere in Soho? Somewhere that TV and radio people call when they need a saddo to talk about some weird obsession?
If Shelly were here she’d say something about anger issues – that Steve has them – which would wind him up even more. But she isn’t here and he doesn’t want to think about her psychobabble; he just wants to get on with the task at hand. This was her idea after all. If she’s going to live here, they’re going to need more space, that’s what she said. And it’s a lot cheaper to extend than to move. She’s right about that. Who can afford property in London these days? Russian mafia and Saudi princes, that’s all. And why move when all the cellar needs is a little more ceiling height? Shelly wants to do it up in purples and pinks, fill it with shag-pile rugs, beanbags and candles. She says it will be their secret love nest. She’s buying a lava lamp at the weekend. Yes, he can see it now: the two of them lying on a thick rug, naked in the candlelight, entwined in each other’s arms.
Steve scrapes faster, hoping that the rasp of iron against stone might drown out that prat’s nasal twang and the deejay’s false laughter. He doesn’t know why he listens to LBC, except that it’s something to shout at and it breaks the tedium of working down here, alone in the cellar.
“… yes, and the River Effra has always been a feisty one, if I may put it like that – flooded and carried off Sunday roasts from houses circa 1914…”
Steve wrinkles up his nose and mimics squeakily, “circa 1914”. His sarcastic oo-oo-sound ricochets round the damp stone walls of the cellar as perspiration runs down his forehead. He pauses to mop his face on his sleeve and crouches to measure his progress. The Victorian grout is loose now, chipping and curling up so that soon he’ll be able to wedge the pick between the flagstones and lever the first one off the ground.
“… a coffin, from West Norwood Cemetery, no less, was carried under south London all the way to the Thames…”
No less? No less? Did that mammoth arsehole really say West Norwood Cemetery, no less? Steve can think of more glamorous venues. He laughs to himself as he imagines taking Shelly to the cemetery for a romantic evening out. Not that he would of course, it wouldn’t be worth the aggro, but he can indulge in fantasy, can’t he?
He leans on the handle of his pickaxe and swigs some water. This is hard work but it’ll be worth it. At least, he hopes it will.
Now that he stops to think about it, he likes the brickwork as it is. Seems a shame to cover it up with girly pink. And it might be a bit too cold to get completely naked down here – there’s no heating and it’s damp. Steve readjusts the picture in his head: making love with his socks on; Shelly in that awful teddy-bear onesie she wears; the drone of a fan heater in the background; the cold from the floor seeping up through the shag-pile rug. Truth is, as love nests go, this one won’t be very cosy.
They don’t need a love nest anyway. There’s a perfectly good bedroom, isn’t there? What this room would be really good for is the Xbox. Steve could play computer games all night down here – lose track of time, absorb himself in the worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim, with the volume up as high as he likes because he wouldn’t be disturbing anyone. All he has to do is persuade Shelly to see things his way before she goes out and buys the bloody lava lamp.
Next day, and the radio is rattling on with a big row about strikes on the Underground. Underground rivers. Underground trains. So much of London’s life is underground, Steve wonders why more people don’t extend into their cellars. Except that it’s hard work levering up flagstones that have been in place for more than a hundred years. They’re heavy to drag across the cellar in the dark too. And he wonders whether it’s worth the trouble now that Shelly’s in a mood with him.
“Oh shut up!” Steve shouts at some miserable moaning commuter.
He should never have mentioned the Xbox, should have known that would upset her. She called him selfish, and trotted out her usual line about him never listening. He can still hear it now: Trouble with you Steve is you never listen… blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.
He decides not to dwell on it, to think about other things instead, and eases up another flagstone, which he props against the wall and marks with chalk. He’ll finish pulling them up today and tomorrow he’ll dig. He only needs to go down a couple of feet. Then he’ll put the flagstones back as they were, like pieces in a jigsaw, like London Bridge when they moved it to America.
Underground car parks, there’s another one.
He loses track of time, pulling up flagstones and wheeling them across the blue-grey clay to the wall. He doesn’t stop until he’s upended each stone, then he gazes at the soft new floor he’s uncovered. It seems to sweat under his feet. Underground sweat, he thinks. A trick of the light, maybe, the way it glistens, or a mirage.
He’s knackered. He’s seeing things.
Steve dreams of King Canute, sailing through Brixton on a Viking longboat, gliding past the Ritzy yelling in a smug nasal twang, “Oy, Steve! Thought you were getting a Waitrose round here?” He watches Canute’s ship disappear up Effra Road towards his flat. There’s Shelly, all dressed up on the back of the longboat. She smirks at Steve as if to say she’s too good for him now. King Canute puts his arm round her and shouts something else, but he can’t hear it.
He wakes with aching muscles, makes coffee and takes it down to the cellar, where he flicks on the radio, lines up his buckets and starts to dig. He could have sworn the floor was grey yesterday – a pleasant blue-grey somewhere between Wedgewood and gunmetal. Now it’s caramel and clammy to the touch. But what does it matter? He’s only going to dig it up, put it in buckets and haul it up to the garden. He wiggles the spade into the clay as people phone LBC to argue about Thames Water and hosepipe bans. The clay sticks to itself, gloops and squelches as he cuts it out of the cellar floor and lifts it into buckets.
By the lunchtime news he’s cut a trench two feet deep that’s broad enough for him to stand in. He knocks back the water in his bottle, listening to the mayor go on about London Underground workers. “You plonker!” Steve shouts at the radio.
London’s mayor. Now there’s a man who never listens, but Shelly won’t hear a word against him, oh no. Thinks he’s funny with his floppy hair. Steve jabs his spade at the clay beneath him.
Now that he comes to think about it, Shelly’s got a nerve telling him he doesn’t listen when every time he sees her he has to put up with her prattling on about her fitness regime or getting in touch with her spiritual side. Clay slides off his spade into a bucket. He stabs at the floor again. He’d like to see the how the mayor would cope with Shelly blabbing on. Or King Canute for that matter. All this work he’s doing! All this effort! For what?
Steve pauses, glances round the cellar and fast forwards: purple shag-pile carpets, purple lava lamp, the sweet pong of lavender candles and the sound of Shelly’s voice as she sits there in her teddy-bear onesie, dissecting their relationship, telling him he has issues. And him, listening – having to listen to all this, every day, till the end of his natural life.
No, he can’t do it. He’s going to have to tell her, isn’t he? That she can’t move in. It’s over. They’re not right for each other. God knows how but better to do it before she brings her stuff round, before it’s too late. He licks the brine from his lips, hears it squelch under his arms and feels its warmth between his toes. Shit. How’s he going to tell her? Best get it over with. Tell her straight away. Yes. Now. Why prolong the agony?
He throws down the spade and starts to climb out of the trench. Only he can’t; it won’t let him go. Sodden clay grasps at his feet and clings to his boots. It weighs down his legs. Sweat runs off his forehead into his eyes, oozes from his skin and dampens his clothes. Water laps at his ankles. He’s standing in a puddle, but it feels like he’s sinking, being sucked down through the hole he’s dug.
On the radio, the mayor has moved onto water cannon.
“You utter prick!” shouts Steve.
He’s up to his waist in water now, arms flailing round for something to grip onto. He tries grabbing one of the buckets, but it tips – the clay inside sluggish as it rolls towards him. He snatches at the floor of the cellar, but it slides down the bank of the trench with him, splashes into the water that’s rising up to his chest, his Adam’s apple, his chin.
The mayor claims most Londoners support the use of water cannon in limited circumstances, which pisses Steve off but there’s nothing he can do about it now. He can’t even shout at him. Not any more. Water is seeping up his nose. He spews and spits but the taste of wet clay sloshes inside his mouth. Grit scours the inside of his cheeks. Underground rivers, he thinks as he slips below the surface. He closes his eyes and sees Canute on the back of the longboat, shouting at him: “The River Effra has always been a feisty one!”
His eyes ping open and he watches as his last breath floats away in bubbles that gently pop on the surface, one by one. He should have listened. Perhaps Shelly was right, but it’s too late now. He sinks through the mud to the river below, and is carried underground to the Thames.