I don't know how I lost you. I remember there was that long time of searching for you, frantic and sick-making ... I was almost ecstatic with anxiety. And then I found you, so that was alright. Only I lost you again. And I can't make out how it happened.
I'm sitting out here on the flat roof you must remember, looking out over this dangerous city. There is, you remember, a dull view from my roof. There are no parks to break up the urban monotony, no towers worth a damn. Just an endless, featureless cross-hatching of brick and concrete, a drab chaos of interlacing backstreets stretching out interminably behind my house. I was disappointed when I first moved here, I didn't see what I had in that view. Not until Bonfire Night.
I just caught a buffet of cold air and the sound of wet cloth in the wind. I saw nothing, of course, but I know that an early riser flew right past me. I can see dusk welling up behind the gas towers.
That night, November the fifth, I climbed up and watched the cheap fireworks roar up all around me. They burst at the level of my eyes and I traced their routes in reverse to mark all the tiny gardens and balconies from which they flew. There was no way I could keep track, there were just too many. So I sat up there in the midst of all that red and gold splendour and gawped in awe. That washed-out grey city I had ignored for days spewed out all that power, that sheer beautiful energy.
I was seduced then. I never forgot that display, I was never again fooled by the quiescence of the backstreets I saw from my bedroom window. They were dangerous. They remain dangerous.
But of course it's a different kind of dangerous now. Everything's changed. I floundered, I found you, I lost you again, and I'm stuck above these pavements with no one to help me.
I can hear hissing and gentle gibbering on the wind. They're roosting close by, and with the creeping dark they're stirring, and waking.
You never came round enough. There was I with my new flat above the betting shops and cheap hardware stores and grocers of Kilburn High Road. It was cheap and lively. I was a pig in shit. I was happy as Larry. I ate at the local Indian and went to work and self-consciously patronised the poky little independent bookshop, despite its pathetic stock. And we spoke on the phone and you even came by, a few times. Which was always excellent.
I know I never came to you. You lived in fucking Barnet. I'm only human.
What were you up to, anyway? How could I be so close to someone, love someone so much and know so little about their life? You wafted into North-West London with your plastic bags, vague about where you'd been, vague about where you were going, who you were seeing, what you were up to. I still don't know how you had the money to indulge your tastes for books and music. I still don't understand what happened with you and that woman Theo you had that fucked-up affair with.
I always liked how little our love-lives impacted on our relationship. We would spend the day playing arcade games and shooting the shit about x or y film, or comic, or album, or book, and only as an afterthought as you gathered yourself to go, we'd mention the heartache we were suffering, or the blissed-out perfection of our new lovers.
But I had you on tap. We might not speak for weeks but one phone-call was all it would ever need.
That won't work now. I don't dare touch my phone any more. For a long time there was no dialling tone, only irregular bursts of static, as if my phone were scanning for signals. Or as if it were jamming them.
The last time I picked up the receiver something whispered to me down the wires, asked me a question in a reverential tone, in a language I did not understand, all sibilants and dentals. I put the phone down carefully and have not lifted it since.
So I learnt to see the view from my roof in the garish glow of fireworks, to hold it in the awe it deserved. That view is gone now. It's changed. It has the same topography, it's point for point the same as it ever was, but it's been hollowed out and filled with something new. Those dark thoroughfares are no less beautiful, but everything has changed.
The angle of my window, the height of my roof, hid the tarmac and paving stones from me: I saw the tops of houses and walls and rubble and skips, but I couldn't see ground level, I never saw a single human being walk those streets. And that lifeless panorama I saw brimmed with potential energy. The roads might be thronging, there might be a street party or a traffic accident or a riot just out of my sight. It was a very full emptiness I had learnt to see, on Bonfire Night, a very charged desolation.
That charge has changed polarity. The desolation remains. Now I can see no one because no one is there. The roads are not thronging, and there are no street parties out there at all, nor could there ever be again.
Sometimes, of course, those streets must snap into sharp focus as a figure strides down them, determined and nervous, as I myself stride down Kilburn High Road when I leave the house. And usually the figure will be lucky, and reach the deserted supermarket without incident, and find food and leave and get home again, as I have been lucky.
Sometimes, though, they will fall through a faultline in the pavement and disappear with a despairing wail, and the street will be empty. Sometimes they will smell something enticing from a cosy-looking house, trip eager into the open front door and be gone. Sometimes they will pass through glimmering filaments that dangle from the dirty trees, and they will be reeled in.
I imagine some of these things. I don't know how people are disappeared, in these strange days, but hundreds of thousands, millions of souls have gone. London's main streets, like the high road I can see from the front of my house, contain only a few anxious figures -- a drunk, maybe, a lost-looking policeman listening to the gibberish from his radio, someone sitting nude in a doorway -- everyone avoiding everyone else's eyes.
The backstreets are almost deserted.
What's it like where you are, Jake? Are you still out there in Barnet? Is it full? Has there been a rush to the suburbs?
I doubt it's as dangerous as Kilburn.
Nowhere's as dangerous as Kilburn.
I've found myself living in the Badlands.
This is where it's all at, this is the centre. Only a few stupid shits like me live here now, and we are disappearing one by one. I have not seen the corduroy man for days, and the glowering youth who camped down in the bakery is no longer there.
We shouldn't stay here. We have, after all, been warned.
Why do I stay? I could make my way in reasonable safety southwards, towards the centre. I've done it before, I know what to do. Travel at midday, clutch my A to Z like a talisman. I swear it protects me. It's become my grimoire. It would take an hour or so to walk to Marble Arch, and it's a main road all the way. Those are reasonable odds.
I've done it before, walked down Maida Vale, over the canal, full these days of obscure detritus. Past the tower on the Edgware Road with the exoskeleton of red girders that jut into the sky twenty feet above the flat roof. I have heard something padding and snorting in the confines of that high prison, caught a glimpse of glistening muscle and slick fur shaking the metal in agitation.
I think the things that flap drop food into the cage from above.
But get past that and I'm home free, onto Oxford Street, where most of London now lives. I was last there a month ago, and they'd done a decent job of it. Several shops are operating, accepting the absurd hand-scrawled notes that pass for currency, selling what items they can salvage, or make, or find delivered to them inexplicably in the morning.
They can't escape it, of course, what's happening to the city. Signs of it abound.
With so many people gone the city is generating its own rubbish. In the cracks of buildings and the dark spaces under abandoned cars little knots of matter are self-organising into grease-stained chip wrappers, broken toys, cigarette packets, before snapping the tiny umbilicus that anchors them to the ground and drifting out across the streets. Even on Oxford Street every morning sees a fresh crop of litter, each filthy newborn piece marked with a minuscule puckered navel.
Even on Oxford Street, every day without fail in front of the newsagents, the bundles appear: the Telegraph and Lambeth News. The only papers to survive the quiet cataclysm. They are generated daily, written, published and delivered by person or persons or forces unseen.
I already crept downstairs today, Jake, to pick up my copy of the Telegraph from across the road. The headline is `Autochthonic Masses Howling and Wet-Mouthed'. The sub-head: `Pearl, Faeces, Broken Machines'.
But even with these reminders, Oxford Street is a reassuring place. Here, people get up and go to work, dress in clothes we would recognise from nine months ago, have coffee in the morning and resolutely ignore the impossibility of what they are doing. So why don't I stay there?
I think it's the invitation from the Gaumont State which keeps me here, Jake.
I can't leave Kilburn behind. There are secrets here I haven't found. Kilburn is the centre of the new city, and the Gaumont State is the centre of Kilburn.
The Gaumont was inspired, preposterously, by New York's Empire State Building. On a miniature scale, perhaps, but its lines and curves are dignified and impassive and easily ignore the low brick and dirt camouflage of their surroundings. It was still a cinema when I was a child and I remember the symmetrical sweep of the twin staircases within, the opulence of chandelier and carpet and marble tracings.
Multiplexes, with their glorified video screens and tatty decor, are unimpressed by cinema. The Gaumont is of an age when film was still a miracle. It was a cathedral.
It closed and grew shabby. And then it opened again, to the electronic chords of slot machines in the vestibule. Outside, two huge pink neon standards explained the Gaumont's new purpose in vertical script, reading downwards: Bingo.
You were my first thought, as soon as I knew something had happened. I don't remember waking when the train pulled in to London. My first memory is stepping off the carriage into the evening cool and feeling afraid.
It was no ESP, no sixth sense that told me something was wrong. It was my eyes.
The platform was full, as you would expect, but the crowd moved like none I had ever seen. There were no tides, no currents moving to and from the indicator board, the ticket counter, the shops. No fractal patterns emerged from this mass. The flap of a butterfly's wing in one corner of the station would create no typhoons, no storms, not a sough of wind anywhere else. The deep order of chaos had broken down.
It looked as I imagine purgatory must. A huge room full of vacant souls milling atomised and pointless, each in personal despair.
I saw a guard, as alone as all the others.
What's happened? I asked him. He was confused, shaking his head. He would not look at me. Something's happened, he said. Something ... there was a collapse ... nothing works properly ... there's been a ... a breakdown ...
He was being very inexact. That wasn't his fault. It was a very inexact apocalypse.
Between the time I had closed my eyes on the train and the time I had opened them again, some organising principle had failed.
I've always imagined the occurrence in very literal terms. I have always envisaged a vast impossible building, a spiritual power station with an unstable core shitting out the world's energy and connectivity ... I've always envisaged the cogs and wheels of that unthinkable machinery overheating ... some critical mass being reached ... the mechanisms faltering and seizing up as the core explodes soundlessly and spews its poisonous fuel across the city and beyond.
In Bhopal, Union Carbide vomited up a torturing, killing bile all over the land. In Chernobyl the fallout was a more insidious cellular terrorism.
And now ... Kilburn erupts with vague, surreal entropy.
I know, Jake, I know, you can't help smiling, can you? From the awesome and terrible to the ridiculous. The walls here are not stacked high with corpses. There is rarely any blood when the inhabitants of London disappear. But the city's winding down, Jake, and Kilburn is the epicentre of the burnout.
I left the guard alone in his confusion.
Got to find Jake, I thought.
You're probably smiling self-deprecatingly when you read that, but I swear to you it's true. You'd been in the city when it happened, you had seen it. Think of it, Jake. I was asleep, in transit, neither here nor there. I didn't know this city, I'd never been here before. But you'd watched it being born.
There was no one else in the city for me. You could be my guide, or we could at least be lost together.
The sky was utterly dead. It looked cut out of matt black paper and pasted above the silhouettes of the towers. All the pigeons were gone. We didn't know it then, but the unseen flapping things had burst into existence full-grown and ravenous. In the first few hours they swept the skies quite clean of prey.
The streetlamps were still working, as they are now, but in any case there was nothing profound about the darkness. I wandered nervously, found a telephone box. It didn't seem to want my money but it let me make the call anyway.
Your mother answered.
Hello, she said. She sounded listless and nonplussed.
I paused for far too long. I was groping for new etiquette in this new time. I had no sense of social rules, and I stammered as I wondered whether to say something about the change.
Is Jake there please? I finally said, banal and absurd.
He's gone, she said. He's not here. He went out this morning to shop, and he hasn't come back.
Your brother came on the line then and spoke brusquely. He went to some bookshop, he said, and I knew where you were then. I thanked him and rang off.
It was the bookshop we found on the right as you leave Willesden Green station, where the slope of the high road begins to steepen. It is cheap and capricious. We were seduced by the immaculate edition of Voyage to Arcturus in the window, and entertained by the juxtaposition of Kierkegaard and Paul Daniels.
If I could have chosen where to be when London wound down, it would be in that zone, where the city first notices the sky, at the summit of a hill, surrounded by low streets that let sound escape into the clouds. Kilburn, ground zero, just over the thin bulwark of backstreets. Perhaps you had a presentiment that morning, Jake, and when the breakdown came you were ready, waiting in that perfect vantage point.
It's dark out here on the roof. It's been dark for some time. But I can see enough to write, from deflected streetlamps and maybe from the moon, too. The air is buffeted more and more by the passage of those hungry, unseen things, but I'm not afraid.
I can hear them fighting and nesting and courting in the Gaumont's tower, jutting over my neighbours' houses and shops. A little while ago there was a dry sputter and crack, and a constant low buzz now underpins the night sounds.
I am attuned to that sound. The murmur of neon.
The Gaumont State is blaring its message to me across the short, deserted distance of pavement.
I am being called to over the organic nonsense of the flyers and the more constant whispers of young rubbish in the wind.
I've heard it all before, I've read it before ... I'm taking my own sweet fucking time over this letter ... then I'll see what's being asked of me.
I took the tube to Willesden.
I wince to think of it, now, I jerk my mind away. I wasn't to know. It was safer then, anyway, in those early days.
I've crept into the underground stations in the months since, to check the whispered rumours for myself. I've seen the trains go by with the howling faces in all the windows, too fast to see clearly, something like dogs, I've seen trains burning with cold light, long slow trains empty except for one dead-looking woman staring directly into my eyes, en route Jesus Christ knows where.
It was nothing like that back then, not nearly so dramatic. It was too cold and too quiet, I remember. And I am not sure the train had a driver.
But it let me go. I came to Willesden and as I stepped out onto that uncovered station I could, for the first time, feel something different about the world. There was a very slow epiphany building up under the skin of the night, oozing out of the city's pores, breaking over me ponderously.
I climbed the stairs out of that underworld.
When Orpheus looked back, Jake, it wasn't stupid. The myths are slanderous. It wasn't the sudden fear that she wasn't there which turned his head. It was the threatening light from above. What if it was not the same, out there? It's so human, to turn and catch the eye of your companion on a return journey, to share a moment's terror that everything you know will have changed.
There was no one I could look back to, and everything I knew had changed. Pushing open the doors onto the street was the bravest thing I have ever done.
I stood on the high railway bridge. I was hit by wind. Across the street before me, emerging from below the bridge, below my feet, the elegant curved gorge containing the tracks stretched away. Steep banks of scrub contained it, squat bushes and weeds that tugged petulantly at the scree.
There was very little sound. I could see only a few stars. I felt as if the whole sky scudded above me.
The shop was dark but the door opened. It was a relief to walk into still air.
We're fucking shut, somebody said. He sounded despairing.
I wound between the piles of strong-smelling books towards the till. I could see shapes and shades in this half-hearted darkness. An old bald man was slumped on a stool behind the desk.
I don't want to buy anything, I said. I'm looking for someone. I described you.
Look around, mate, he said. Fucking empty. What do you want from me? I ain't seen your friend or no one.
Very fast, I felt hysteria. I swallowed back a desire to run to all the corners of the shop and throw piles of books around, shouting your name, to see where you were hiding. As I fought to speak the old man took some kind of contemptuous pity on me and sighed.
One like the one you said, he's been drifting in and out of here all day. Last here about two hours ago. If he comes in again he can fuck off, I'm closed.
How do you tell the incredible? It seems odd, what strikes us as unbelievable.
I had learnt, very fast, that the rules of the city had imploded, that sense had broken down, that London was a broken and bloodied thing, I accepted that with numbness, only a very little astonished.
But I was nearly sick with disbelief and relief to walk out of that shop and see you waiting.
You stood under the eaves of a newsagent's, half in shadow, an unmistakable silhouette.
If I stop for a moment it is all so prosaic, so obvious, that you would wait for me there. When I saw you, though, it was a like a miracle.
Did you shudder with relief to see me?
Could you believe your eyes?
It's difficult to remember that, right now, when I am up here on the roof surrounded by the hungry flapping things that I cannot see, without you.
We met in the darkness that dripped off the front of the building's facade. I hugged you tight.
Man ... I said.
Hey, you said.
We stood like fools, silent for a while.
Do you understand what's happened? I said.
You shook your head, shrugged and waved your arms vaguely to encompass everything around us.
I don't want to go home, you said. I felt it go. I was in the shop and I was looking at this weird little book and I felt something huge just ... slip away.
I was asleep in a train. I woke up and found it like this.
What happens now?
I thought you could tell me that. Didn't you all get issued ... rule-books or something? I thought I was punished for being asleep, that's why I didn't understand anything.
No, man. You know, loads of people have just ... disappeared, I swear. When I was in the shop I looked up just before, and there were four other people in there. And then I looked up just after and there was only me and this other guy, and the shopkeeper.
Smiles, I said. The cheerful one.
We stood silent again.
This is the way the world ends, you said.
Not with a bang, I continued, but with a ...
... with a long-drawn-out breath? you suggested.
I told you that I was walking home, to Kilburn, just over the way. Come with me, I said. Stay at mine.
You were hesitant.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, I'm sure it was my fault. It was just the old argument, about you not coming to see me, not staying longer, translated into the world's new language. Before the fall you would have made despairing noises about having to be somewhere, hint darkly at commitments you could not explain, and disappear. But in this new time those excuses became absurd. And the energy you put into your evasions was channelled elsewhere, into the city, which was hungry like a newborn thing, which sucked up your anxiety, assimilated your inchoate desires and fulfilled them.
At least walk with me over to Kilburn, I said. We can work out what we're going to do when we're there.
Yeah, sure man, I just want to ...
I couldn't make out what it was you wanted to do.
You were distracted, you kept looking over my shoulder at something, and I was looking around quickly, to see what was intriguing you, there was a sense of interruptions, though the night was as silent as ever, and I kept glancing back at you, and I tugged at you to make you come with me and you said Sure sure man, just one second, I want to see something and you began to cross the road with your eyes fixed on something out of my sight and I was getting angry and then I lost my grip on you because I could hear a sound from over the brow of the railway bridge, from the East.
I could hear the sound of hooves.
My arm was still outstretched but I was no longer touching you, and I turned my head towards the sound, I stared at the hill's apex. Time stretched out. The darkness just above the pavement was split by a wicked splinter which grew and grew as something long and thin and sharp appeared over the hill. It sliced the night at an acute angle. A clenched, gloved fist rose below it, clutching it tight. It was a sword, a splendid ceremonial sabre. The sword pulled a man after it, a man in a strange helmet, a long silver spike adorning his head and a white plume streaming out in his wake.
He rode in an insane gallop but I felt no urgency as he burst into view, and I had all the time I needed to see him, to study his clothes, his weapon, his face, to recognise him.
He was one of the horsemen who stands outside the palace ... are they called the household cavalry? With the hair draped from their helmet spike in an immaculate cone, their mirrored boots, their bored horses. They are legendary for their immobility. It is a tourist game to stare at them and mock them and stroke their mounts' noses, without a flicker of human emotion defiling their duty.
As this man's head broke the brow of the hill I saw that his face was creased and cracked into an astonishing warrior's expression, the snarl of an attacking dog, idiot bravery such as must have been painted across the faces of the Light Brigade.
His red jacket was unbuttoned and it flickered around him like a flame. He half-stood in his stirrups, crouched low, grasping the reins in his left hand, his right held high with that beautiful blade spitting light into my face. His horse rose into view, its veins huge under its white skin, its eyes rolling in an insane equine leer, drool spurting from behind its bared teeth, its hooves hammering down the deserted tarmac of the Willesden Railway Bridge.
The soldier was silent, though his mouth was open as if he shouted his valedictory roar. He rode on, holding his sword high, bearing down on some imaginary enemy, pushing his horse on towards Dollis Hill, down past the Japanese Restaurant and the record shop and the bike dealer and the vacuum cleaner repair man.
The soldier swept past me, stunning and stupid and misplaced. He rode between us, Jake, so close that beads of sweat hit me.
I can picture him on duty as the cataclysm fell, sensing the change in the order of things and knowing that the queen he was sworn to protect was gone or irrelevant, that his pomp meant nothing in the decaying city, that he had been trained into absurdity and uselessness, and deciding that he would be a soldier, just once. I see him clicking his heels and cantering through the confused streets of central London, picking up speed as the anger at his redundancy grows, giving the horse its head, letting it run, feeling it shy at the strange new residents of the skies, until it was galloping hard and he draws his weapon to prove that he can fight, and careers off into the flatlands of North West London, to disappear or die.
I watched his passing, dumbstruck and in awe.
And when I turned back, of course, Jake, when I turned back, you had gone.
The frantic searches, the shouts and the misery you can imagine for yourself. I have little enough dignity as it is. It went on for a long time, though I had known as I raised my head to your lack that I would not find you.
Eventually I found my way to Kilburn, and as I walked past the Gaumont State I looked up and saw that neon message, garish and banal and terrifying. The message that is there still, the request that tonight, finally, after so many months, I think I will acquiesce to.
I don't know where you went to, how you were disappeared. I don't know how I lost you. But after all my searching for a hiding place, that message on the face of the Gaumont cannot be coincidence. Although it might, of course, be misleading. It might be a game. It might be a trap.
But I'm sick of waiting, you know? I'm sick of wondering. So let me tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to finish this letter, soon now, and I'm going to put it in an envelope with your name on it. I'll put a stamp on it (it can't hurt) and I'll venture out into the street -- yes, even in the heart of the night -- and I'll put it in the post-box.
From there, I don't know what'll happen. I don't know the rules of this place at all. It might be eaten by some presence inside the box, it might be spat back out at me, or reproduced a hundred times and pasted on the windows of all the warehouses in London. I'm hoping that it will find its way to you. Maybe it'll appear in your pocket, or at the door of your place, wherever you are now. If you are anywhere, that is.
It's a forlorn hope. I admit that. Of course I admit that.
But I had you, and I lost you again. I'm marking your passing. And I am marking mine.
Because you see, Jake, then I'm going to walk the short distance up Kilburn High Road to the Gaumont State, and I'm going to read its plea, its command, and this time I think I will obey.
The Gaumont State is a beacon, a lighthouse, a warning we missed. It jags impassive into the clouds as the city founders on rocks. Its filthy cream walls are daubed with a hundred markings, human, animal, meteorological, and ... other. In its squat square tower lies the huge nest of rags or bones or hair where the flying things bicker and brood. The Gaumont State exerts its own gravity over the changed city. I suspect all compasses point to it now. I suspect that in the magnificent entrance, framed by those wide stairs, something is waiting. The Gaumont State is the generator of the dirty entropy that has taken London by storm. I suspect there are many fascinating things inside.
I'm going to let it reel me in.
Those two huge pink signs that heralded the Gaumont's rebirth as a temple of cheap games ... they have changed. They are selective. They ignore certain letters, and have done ever since that night. Both now scorn the initial B. The sign on the left illuminates only the second and third letters, that on the right only the fourth and fifth. The signs flicker on and off in antiphase, taking turns to blaze their gaudy challenge.
Alright. OK. I'll go in. I'll tidy up my house and post my letter and stand in front of that edifice, squinting at the now-opaque glass which keeps its secrets, and I will go in.
I don't really believe you're in there, Jake, if you're reading this. I don't really believe that any longer. I know that can't be so. But I can't leave it alone. I can leave no stone unturned.
I'm so fucking lonely.
I'll climb those exquisite stairs, if I get that far. I'll cross the grand corridors, wind through tunnels into the great vast hall that I believe will be glowing very bright. If I get that far.
Could be that I'll find you. I'll find something, something will find me.
I won't be coming home, I'm sure.
I'll go in. The city doesn't need me around while it winds down. I was going to catalogue its secrets, but that was for my benefit, not the city's, and this is just as good.
I'll go in.
See you soon, I hope, Jake. I hope.
All my love,