Smoke 9 Excerpts


Down the A2 on a dying summer evening, sunset-lit drive-thru McDonald’s and petrol stations awakening desires for fast food, drinks sipped from labelled cartons through straws, the carefree consumerism of a paper bag in the footwell. The boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley are beautiful in this light, Californian sophistication, broad roads with high, halogen streetlamps lit against a dark blue and orange sky. Busy junctions with traffic lights suspended overhead, sports cars full of girls, lorries with foreign number plates. By the time we get to Estuary Kent proper this has faded into isolation, backwardness, the place where Magwitch caught Pip in the graveyard. The swirling mists and the ague are gone but the atmosphere remains. Further down the road is Faversham, the last bastion of Estuary poverty and threat before Canterbury and the Garden of England – but we never get that far.

Night Drive Through Kent – Ben Austwick

Our teacher Grigoriy Alexandrovich resided in the distant and obscure suburb of Kholodnaya Gora (“Cold Mountain”). I can still see his lanky snow-covered frame entering energetically – almost falling into – our flat. In his battered, capacious briefcase he carried some faded postcards with coloured views of London. They came from a hard-to-obtain “Cities of the Capitalist Inferno” (or something of that sort) postcard set, shoddily printed by our local “Red Proletarian” publishing house. These postcards were given out to us as prizes for diligence in our studies of the English language. I remember a badly drawn “British worker”, hastily printed into my Piccadilly Circus picture, probably on the orders of a vigilant postcard censor, to add a proper political balance to the otherwise rather decadent “capitalist” view – no tractors or red banners in sight. With a Soviet-style flat cap on his head, the “worker” stood on the steps next to the Eros statue holding a poster that ran simply: “1st of Mey”.

Postcards of Piccadilly – Vitali Vitaliev

We press into the market looking for records, clothes, bootleg tapes of the kinds of gigs we wouldn’t be allowed into, even if we didn’t have to be on the train by 6.30. Tess, her hair crimped and teased out around a pale face, fancies herself as a goth – at school she wears as much black as she can and wanders around with no shoes on, daring the boys to make fun of her. She loves it here, trying on net gloves and wristbands and buying black nail varnish that her mum won’t let her wear.

Walking Round You Sometimes Hear The Sunshine Beating Down In Time With The Rhythm Of Your Shoes – Lucy Munro

I was no good at my job. I’d get hopelessly lost, and find myself – by chains of derelict rooms, cavernous filing stores, enclaves of secret offices, walkways above chilly crevasses in the building’s fabric, ancient goods lifts scrawled with Balkan graffiti – transposed disbelievingly back into a known corridor or lobby, my mental map disordered, convinced that the hospital had turned monstrous and rearranged itself about me.

All The Lights of Heaven and Hell – Duncan Kennedy

My father, lovely though he was, was a man all too willing to sacrifice himself on the altar of bewilderment. Decimal coinage, David Bowie, driving on the left – any of these topics, introduced at dinner, could leave his face clouded for the rest of the evening by an expression that only deep consternation or severe constipation might explain. The one thing Father could never quite fathom above all else, though, was his darling daughter’s total lack of interest in sport, for a fierce love of balls and embrocation had coursed through the Bendix veins since 1896, when my great-grandfather’s unconventional approach to polo at the Athens Olympics had led not only to a very literal rewriting of the rulebook, which thereafter explicitly used the word “horse”, but also to a lifetime of back-trouble for my great-grandmother.

The Heat of Embrocation – Tricity Bendix

I see no alternative but to slink about like the slyest of foxes, and become the enigma I have always yearned to become. From now on, I will be sneaky; I will be surreptitious. No, I will be *clandestine*. (Oh my! I will be *clandestine*. I will wear my long leather coat and my trilby just so, and hide my dewy eyes behind marvellous sunglasses.)

Notes from an Editor in Exile – Jude Rogers

The idea was a grand one: dig a ditch across Surrey, fill it with water, and sail boats down it from Epsom to the Thames, bringing cauliflowers and cabbages to the sooty, scurvy folk of London town. By 1809, they’d got as far as Camberwell. In 1826, a second branch reached Peckham. It’s hard now, walking up Rye Lane, to equate Peckham with Antwerp, but when they built the new market square and library a few years back, those tasteful granite slabs were laid over a stub of road still defiantly called Quay Head. There was also, briefly, a link to the Croydon Canal at New Cross Gate. But the Croydon Canal was always a runt; just 27 years after the first barge was loaded with lime from the Merstham quarries, the London and Croydon Railway put down sleepers where the water had been; and in the old dock’s musty hollow at the southern end, they built West Croydon station.

The Peckham Panama – Matt Haynes

A look passed between us, and suddenly I knew. The thousands of people I had jostled, pushed up against, given coins to, during the sweat of the city day, now made sense. It was all for this. I touched her thigh. It was somehow allowed. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s OK. It’s been some time. I’ve had a lot of therapy.” She smiled brightly and her sunniness hurt me. It lacerated my insides. The train made a retching sound and came to a stop. Bond Street.

4 Minutes with Plastic Woman – Vanessa Langford

In fact, such is the neighbourhood’s reputation for gun crime and general mayhem that the estate agent who rented me a flat there refused even to use the word Harlesden. Instead, the area was referred to in his office as “H”, as though it were a proscribed substance. My next-door neighbour told me that, when she moved in in 2000, there was a man in a black leather trenchcoat who’d spend long hours pacing up and down the pavement outside her house. Once she overheard him having a conversation with a man in a car, the most readily audible words of which were: “No, boss – please, boss – no!”

The “H” Word – Giles Morris

Walking up Middlesex Street between Aldgate and Bishopsgate, you could be forgiven for thinking the medieval wall was never pulled down, such is the towering domination of one side of the street over the other. On its western side, the concrete mock-ramparts of Middlesex Street Housing Estate and the marble of banks and offices. On its eastern side, Jack the Ripper territory – all ragged market stalls, Victorian tenements and converted warehouses. On this street, too, are sites of confusion and convergence. In the Market Trader, on the corner of New Goulston Street, traders from the clothes market mix with City slickers working the international currency market.

The City Without – Tom Chivers

So, yes, St Giles has a bit of previous when it comes to grimness: it was a leper colony, it was a slum, it was where Newgate’s losers slugged a last anaesthetic swig of grog before going west to Tyburn, it was where the Plague’s first bubo bulged; even in Hogarth’s time, when it was still Gin Lane not Junkie Alley, estate agents were calling it Holborn Borders. All this used-up history swirls round Centre Point’s grubby white needle like ketchupy Big Mac wrappers. But to blame spooky psychic vibes for the area’s serial misfortune is deterministic hippy nonsense. St Giles is simply a bit of a no-man’s-land, a dumping ground between City and Westminster – that’s why they shoved the lepers here.

No Kind of Magic – Matt Haynes

The Sign of Four is one of a surprising number of stories that locate part or all of their action in the south London suburbs of Camberwell, Brixton, Streatham, Beckenham, Norwood, Kennington, Norbury, Sydenham and, more rarely, Lewisham and Blackheath. Visiting Thaddeus Sholto in Coldharbour Lane, Holmes comments to Watson, “Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.” The lack of obvious bohemian culture in the south London suburbs is part of what makes such locations appealing to Doyle. Whether commercial or countrified, they are home alike to the reputable middle-classes and the déclassé criminals who pray on them: a perfect backdrop, indeed, for intrigue, confidence trickery and murder most foul.

Sherlock Holmes and the Howling Desert of South London – Lucy Munro

The No. 6 swung round Marble Arch and set out up Edgware Road. Foolishly, I’d resumed gazing out of the window, my eye having been caught by the dazzling lights of the Odeon cinema, which was advertising a saucy new blockbuster where bodices were ripped and cherries popped. I say “foolishly” because, when I turned back, I was both stunned and impressed to see the newly-formed friendship in front of me had progressed to kissing across the aisle. With steadfast British stoicism, my fellow passengers were burying their heads in their Standards, turning up their iPods, and giggling behind their hands; but I, as a diehard romantic, was gripped.

No.6 Love Story – Jane Mornement

I’ve planned it all out. I will say “hi” and he will ask me what I do and where I live. Then I will say “nowhere and nothing” and he will give me a house. A big beautiful house in the country, but not too big and it will be brick and slightly fallen down. Sometimes I will see him and one day he will put a ring on the third finger of my left hand and will say to me “never lose it”. I will take in its beauty, just for a moment, the emeralds and that, and then I will toss it into the sea, like in that film. He will be distraught and ask “why?” And I will reply: “Now I can never lose it and I will always know where it is.”

Paper Aeroplane – Grace Chilton

Paranoia kicks in. Are they following me? Has anyone else seen me? Do any of the others on the bus know I’m a thief? At the same time that I’m thinking all this, I’m assessing the booty. We were right. This isn’t nothing. The bag’s got bulk and weight. There’s a cover over the top where another bag’s been upended over the contents. Whatever’s inside has give; pressing my leg against the side of the carrier, there’s the feel of something interesting.

Highbury Corner, August 1986 – Gary Clapton

This time we meet in the Bierodrome – concrete temple to Belgian beer. It is always Tuesday; and always somewhere we will not be known, always somewhere different. He arranges the place. Sends me a text message with a new name, new location, each Tuesday morning. Each week I head across London to a new destination and stare at the scars of previous assignations that mar my A-Z. In the mornings as I sit on the tube to work, my cheeks stain red as I look up at the tube map. Each line is a fiery flame of erotic memory. Yet I do not know him. I cannot know a man who shares my bed but once a week, whose words are either honeyed compliments or evasive answers. But I cannot let go until I do.

The Cartographer’s Tale – Hat Margolies

So from lampposts Dewey starts climbing trees in stinking summer heat. Kate likes the skinny muscles, she don’t care so much, whipcord-thin like the dog. She sits under the tree after school and writes out pop songs in her homework, pretending all the while she likes smoking. The dog don’t have a name, least if he does he ain’t saying, and he don’t climb lampposts, he likes the trees more anyhow. He smiles at Kate and Dewey. Those kids are pretty good together, but I think they will maybe always be writing pop songs at the bottom of trees and the top of lampposts.

A Fine Thing To Do – Simon Sylvester

The river spread below them, choked with ugly pleasure boats of varying size, shape and riverworthiness. Two boats chugged towards the bridge. Alice made a mental note of which she’d pick for a super-sized game of Pooh Sticks. She definitely didn’t want the one that gave out branded, transparent pac-a-macs to its customers. Passengers. Annoyed at her 1980s corporate style slip, she watched the pac-a-macs race ahead and tried to think no more of it.

International Waters – Andy Scowcroft

Just up Coldharbour Lane is Southwyck House, the Barrier Block. Built to bounce back the noise of London’s inner motorway ring, its big brown cliff is where all the junkies used to nest. It’s all clean now, though; take a shufty from the cat-flap windows and you won’t clock no needles or six-lanes of blacktop – they never built the motorway, only the soundproofing – just Walton Lodge, Sanitary Steam Laundry, 1904 and still steaming away.

Bus of the Month – Matt Haynes