A novella in several live performances

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The Independent Culture

Lunch was a bloater. I'm all puffed up by it still. You'd've thought this would've knocked the wind out of me - that's what they say: I had the wind knocked right out of me. What do they know? The wind's still all inside - a twister of flatulence. I'm windful - not wind-dried like a pulverised duck, strung up in the windows of the Chinese restaurants along Gerrard Street. I can feel the ball of ill-digested pasta from that crappy little Italian place she insisted on eating in swelling in my guts. They can't've cooked it properly, only thrown it in the water, swirled it around and yanked it on to the plates.

Lunch was a bloater. I'm all puffed up by it still. You'd've thought this would've knocked the wind out of me - that's what they say: I had the wind knocked right out of me. What do they know? The wind's still all inside - a twister of flatulence. I'm windful - not wind-dried like a pulverised duck, strung up in the windows of the Chinese restaurants along Gerrard Street. I can feel the ball of ill-digested pasta from that crappy little Italian place she insisted on eating in swelling in my guts. They can't've cooked it properly, only thrown it in the water, swirled it around and yanked it on to the plates.

I can't feel whether I'm upside down, sideways or obliquely wedged into the gutter. I've been flung - of that much I'm certain - flung through the rank, oily air, spun a couple of times like a warped platter of pizza dough, and then slammed down here. The first thing I was aware of on coming back to consciousness, were these random snippets of nonsensical chat, the fragments of a few irrelevancies, bits of concerns I'll never be able to share: "You have got the sound back, haven't you?"; "Yeah-huh"; "Fantastic OK"; "Can you come away please, thank you"; "A load of rubbish - or..."; "Right - OK"; "One minute..."

To what exactly? Awakening from sleep, or stupor, or even from the full inky haze of genuine unconsciousness, the voices are those of adults long gone, dead parents, defunct nannies, moribund teachers, but whose are these? Who's come to look after me as I lie fartful in a Soho gutter? Some plastic mannikin... I can see the seam running up the back of his neck. Rip it out and doubtless he'd come up with an unreassuring piece of blandness. In his wake a charmless bracelet of men, linked together by cabling, strung out along a plastic chord of communication. They're focused on... me... for some reason. Granted, I must present a spectacle of a kind... but hardly newsworthy. But... yes... it is a camera crew. The grizzled bear techie with white, peaked baseball cap and the chunky gold bracelet and rings; the young ginge with the grey T-shirt and the freckle-blotched face; another older type, more pepper than salt in his hair, swarthy, the kind who'll gaffer-tape up his girlfriend for kicks. Suspect tools dangle from their scrotal belts. No, not his girlfriend - he wishes he had a girlfriend. Instead he's only got the gaffer tape. At night in the privacy of his own bedsit he yearns to be someone's own, true, best boy.

But why focus on me? There are a million million milky little upsets in the naked city for this lot to sop up with their J-cloth of a lens. Why pick on me? You can hardly imagine it as breaking news: "Good afternoon, London. We've reports just in of a post-trattoria incident in the heart of Soho... Plastic Mannikin is live at the scene... Over to you Plastic..."

"...Yes, thanks Natasha. I'm standing here in Dean Street observing the pathetic wreckage of a middle-aged man who's had one glass of chianti too many and been rammed into the gutter by a cycle rickshaw. There's a small crowd of onlookers staring at his white belly as it billows from beneath his string vest. A string vest in this day and age! It's a first-degree sartorial crime in our city of new millennial cool. Malicious dressing down with aforethought. I'm going to ask this young man with the particle of hair glued under his bottom lip - sort of a 'lipee' I suppose you'd call it - and the ubiquitous fashion eyewear, what he thinks about it, sir?"

"...Obviously this old guy has had too much to drink. Did you hear the fart that cracked out of him when he hit the tarmac? Awesome. If he'd a good, clumpy-soled pair of sub-orthopaedic shoes like mine he'd be able to keep his balance a little better, the poor old sod..."

"And you young women," the mannikin stays with the carpet of news as it unrolls, "what do you make of this incident?"

"Oooh well, we're just in our lunch hour and we saw it happen and thought we'd come over and take a look." So they gawp. They're accomplished gawpers, these two; see them, uneasily turning towards and away from one another, sniggering at my misfortune, smiling at my suffering, participating in the eternally English outdoor sport of profiting from others' pratfalls. They're even dressed in black - could it be that they're professional... mourners?

At least they've the decency to keep their voices down. If I'm to expire now I'd rather it was their curiously courtly muttering that ushered me off. Oh no, it transpires that it was they who were the subject for this little outside broadcast. Probably a portion of a feature on ciabattas, or scooters, or any of the rest of the Italian retro cluttering up these streets in lieu of an Italian community.

The camera crew has quit, and still there's no sign of an ambulance. Could it be that all those who witnessed the original accident have now gone on their way, and this lot are simply viewing me as another drunk, collapsed in the full, indifferent glare of the city?

Girl in an orange cagoule with Teflon ovals over her eggy eyes; young black woman in brown - which is, of course, the new black; old geezer, gormless in a buff-coloured, round-necked M&S jumper; young geezer with a failed pompadour; and a white-haired, rubicund, leather-jacketed fellow in a waistcoat preposterously patterned with wildfowl. What the hell's he up to - he's got a spiral bound notebook out... and... yes... he's taking notes! He's a stringer of some description. What do they say to him at the office? "Now, listen up John, we want you to go out and cover the Soho beat. Bound to be a few middle-aged drunks toppling over this lunchtime, just the sort of thing you can bring the coruscating wit of your prose style to bear on, hmm...? A thousand words etched by four if you please..." And off he trots, hungry for the most piffling incidents he can clap his beady eyes on.

"Good day dear?" His wife asks him each evening. "Splendid," he replies. "I saw a child drop an ice-cream cone; a young woman ladder her tights; an old woman ram the stoppers of her Zimmer in the crack between two paving stones and become lodged there, unable to stay or go... And - top story for the day this, although I was beaten to the punch by a news camera crew - I saw a middle-aged man knocked into the gutter by a cycle rickshaw in Soho..." "Oh darling! You are my hero! You're soo brave! Out there covering all the hard knocks of life. Come over here and I'll give you a Cup-a-Soup."

The guy with the lipee's still here, he's even hunkered down by the wall, as has another male-patterned young male in a blue, vee-necked sports shirt. Yup - there's no doubt about it, despite initial attention I've dropped straight off the bottom of the interest chart, the top 10 of the transitory. I can hear the demented whoop of emergency sirens heading along Shaftesbury Avenue, they rise and fall, it's the Doppler of passing-me-by and letting me lie. Good thing, too. Didn't change my underwear this morning.

I would've changed it, but then I had no idea I'd be seeing her. Our meetings - like all those of the adulterous - are rigidly time-tabled. It's been a great aphrodisiac this - the bondage of the clock. There was no way I was going to arrange to see her today - but then she called: "Meet me at Zilli's will you?" It sounded to me like "I want your willy". I have, unfortunately, entered my second, shady childhood in this, the high noon of my ardour. I was powerless to deny her - if I don't have lunch with her, who will? Smarmy Pete from Sales. Pete, with his down-turned moue of perpetually sardonic disgust. Pete, with his bloodhound eyes that slobberingly undress her.

I can imagine it only too well. It's as if he had lodestones in his pupils, so that as he runs his gaze down the front of her zip-up white cardigan he pulls the zipper down. He has animal magnetism all right, but what can she see in him? That scraped-into-decency complexion; those curlicues of greying hair; that body, like wax drizzled over a knot of pipe cleaners... Why torment myself? The truth of the matter is he has the gift of the gab, he's witty (he makes herlaugh anyway), he's feckless. If I'd've passed up on the date he'd've been in like Flynn.

A bag of carrots, that's all I can see. A bag of rotten old carrots. Must've been lost off of the back of some costermonger's barrow as he wheeled it towards the market in Berwick Street. Flynn... carrots... Smarmy Pete... Of course she's attracted to him because of his mind, after all, if I deny that this is the case how the hell can I explain the fact that she's attracted to me? By denying Pete his bask in the warmth of her gaze, I'm forswearing my own. Let's face it, that's the irony of young women's sexuality, they start off with fantastic bodies and naive minds, being attracted to men's intellects; and end up with their bodies shot to shit, looking for some morsel of beefcake to stir them up with his rotten carrot.

Anyway, I met her in the restaurant. I walked over here, weaving through the West End pedestrians like some plump bobbin. I marched across the frontier from the City, holding a passport photo of her in the tiny dark booth of my mind. Five-foot-six, shoulder-length blonde hair with dark undertones - she'll end up handsome but for now she's just averagely pretty. Actually, I hope she'll end up being just as fat as I am. That's what we old sourpusses wish on the young - plump misfortune, lardy-come-lately, the asperity of ageing avoirdupois. Like I say, I waddled over, melting this little snap of her fun-sized body in my fervid mind, but, funny thing is that by the time I'd got here I'd quite forgotten what she looked like. Could this be love? This continual summoning up and discarding of her image, this periodic shuffling of the red queen?

Time was when people would be doing something around here. But now the rotten carrots on the pavement are the only evidence of genuine commerce that I can see. Doubtless up stairways stinking of baby oil the lubricious pistons of the sex industry are going in and out, in and out, but barring this there's no real action save for the slurping of froth and the running of reels and the cycling of rickshaws. Young people come here simply to sit around in the street, as if by osmosis they could sop up a little loucheness. Why don't you lot piss off over to Carnaby Street and get a henna tattoo from an economic migrant, or have some braids bound into your straggly hair?

They haven't an idea in their tiny minds - they couldn't even shoehorn an idea into their tiny minds, except maybe: I think I'll have another latte. I'm late for my latte. Where is the next latte coming from? D'you want to have a latte with me? The international community of Starfucks. Kids in their gap year wearing Gap, with nothing in their frontal lobes but a small,yawning gulf. The Piffling Canyon cash-blinkered tourists tiptoe around.

Fucking rickshaws! Who'd've believed it? We're now so bloody prosperous in London that we can afford to introduce novelty, Third World means of transport. I saw that fat fool Eddie from the Financial Engineering Department tooling down Charing Cross Road in the back of one, with some young bint wedged in beside his ample hips. Tush on you my dear! With your Start-Rite sandals and your green knickerbockers, and your white, long-sleeved T-shirt - it's you who're dressed up for a little cycling (besides rotating your heels over the flaccid convexities of Eddie's arse cheeks), it's you who should be up on the saddle pedalling yourself, not that little morsel of a guy with the one retro earring and the chinos which have never had it that good.

"We can't read," says a passing bald boy - and his companion stoops to conquer this lost bit of playfulness. Can't read - won't read. Nothing holds their attention for very long. "Oh, that's the same thing..." and they're gone, back off down the street, looking for teenage kicks, surfing on the collapsing reverberations of the Baby Boom.

Silence - except for the drilling. Some burly dentist is hard at work on the concrete cuspids of the city. And I should've been back at work long ago - my absence will be noticed when it comes to the inter-departmental meeting at four. "Have you seen him?" Hansen will ask, poking his foxy muzzle around the door of my secretary's cubbyhole. "No, not since before lunch," Sheila will reply from beneath her over-bite, "he went into Soho to meet someone..."

What will they suspect me of, the solid bureaucrats, gathered in stodgy convocation on the 15th floor of the building? Will they collectively picture me in their mind's eye, lying on some tart's bed with a rag soaked with butyl nitrate stuffed in my mouth, while she rams a carrot up my bum? Or is it only I who am tormented by such lurid visions?

In truth that dessert I had... the one after the flaccid pasta... did taste like it'd been soaked in butyl nitrate. Probably had. "Go on," she urged me, "have a dessert." A dessert - utter folly after that great mound of earthy food. A dessert - why had my calorie control forsaken me? A dessert - bound to cause real gastric trouble after the bellying bottles had been decanted into mine.

The waitress, an anaemic-looking blonde in a red tunic and baggy white trousers, served us gleefully, watched us nosh with the perpetually hungry eyes of the malnourished. There was a big enough hand on her flat belly - but it was only batik. Not that she was overtly anorexic or anything, it's just that I've noticed how much those who dispense food for a living acquire a workmanlike attitude towards it: pile it up - they'll shovel it down...

Off pops the kid with the lipee; probably on his way to see a trichologist: "What can I do for you young man?"

"Well, I've been trying to grow a goatee for ages now, but I just can't seem to get the hair to sprout on my chin, all I have is this... like... smear under my lip. Can you do anything to help me?"

"Tricky, very tricky. Thing is you don't have much in the way of follicles on your chin. What I suggest you do is grow a little tuft of hair on your throat - a throatee so to speak - and then we'll transplant it on to your chin... Mm?"

What're they drilling for, baby oil? Has there been a bizarre geologists' survey that's located an enormous reservoir of baby oil lying deep below Soho? Are they soon going to strike baby oil so that it gushes up from the hot tarmac of Dean Street? They'll have to plug it and then put in one of those tip-tilting pumps. I think it would only be suitable if this were to be in the shape of a brass servicing a client. Each rise and fall of their iron bodies coinciding with the siphoning off of another barrel load of gunk.

It was a mistake to've levered myself upright sufficiently to crawl the 10 feet across the pavement and slump here against the wall. Now I do just appear to be some sad drunk, rather than the victim of a hit-and-run crime perpetrated by a biker boy racing for a pick-up. No one's going to pick me up. My absence will be noted - but they're hardly going to send a search party out for me. No, no one's going to pay any attention to the me-shaped hole that's opened up in events until... well, until I fail to make it home this evening. I'm not even a missing person yet, I'm simply Awol from the day.

Why d'you bother to paint your toenails? Is it for want of any wider canvas? Is it because you can't see any further than your own feet? Is it - you'll forgive the pun - simply for kicks? My young lover never bothered to paint her toenails, she considered her toes to be quite splendidly attractive in their unvarnished state. I did too. Yummy-yummy. Toenails click by me, painted or not, I'm at a private view of a street-level gallery of feet, some of which are fetishised, others ignored. Up above me I hear the trills, peeps, blips and beeps of mobile phones springing into ersatz life. If I'd brought mine with me this lunchtime I could call my wife and say to her: "Honey, I'm in the drain..." and then, perhaps, she'd come and scrape me out of it, turn over this old leaf.

Back are you? I've been slumped here for so long now that I'm beginning to acquire a sense of the rhythm of this street, its comings and goings, its entrances and exits. It's the old geezer in the M&S woolly and the blue jeans. He's carrying a bike helmet, could it be that it was him who hit me, and that he now feels a prinking remorse which compels him to revisit the scene of his earlier outrage? Mind you, he looks a little old to be pushing a rickshaw for a living.

Or could it be the man with the wild ducks flocking on his belly? He was here when I came to, scribbling in his spiral-bound notebook. I took him for a reporter at the time, before I realised there was nothing grandiose about this subsidence of mine. On reacquaintance he's clearly an art lover of some description, a dandyish aesthete, has he perpetrated this crime as an artwork of a sort?

Now, here's a dull duo, passé passers-by. What've you got inside your black briefcase, you black-clad man? Some carefully selected black Jap objets, purchased at Muji? Or a little black baby to accompany the white one accessorised by your lissom companion? Are you a collector of black bibelots? The knick-knacks from Hades? Nope, nothing but a copy of The Guardian. Quondam liberalism encased in black nylon. Time you hauled your superannuated idealism out of here.

Hello baby. I bet you're sweaty in there. I bet you're all lathered up with baby sweat, shackled into your ergonomic sling. I bet you bitterly regret being born into the British bourgeoisie, born, as it were, with a brightly patterned plastic spoon rammed in your mouth. I'd wager you'd rather be scrabbling in the dirt somewhere, instead of being rocked in this fashion, from heel to toe and back again, a static parody of the nomadic life. Why's daddy brought you into Soho? Has he heard the news over the Net that there's going to be massive baby-oil strike here in Dean Street this afternoon? Has he hied himself hither, along with his baby and his deathly companion, so, that like some impoverished Nigerian, ramming a pannikin against a rupture pipeline, he can catch a few litres of the viscosity and then take it home to Crouch End?

Anyway, we met in Zilli's and I ate too much and she ate too little and we talked of nothing of consequence, until she said: "Really, I think we ought to call this whole thing off. I mean to say, I don't think it's going anywhere - d'you?" Going anywhere? What the hell does that mean. At my age you don't even dream for a second of going anywhere, the whole weight of your being, your effort, is concentrated on simply standing still, on staying here, on dealing with the moment... And we had a few good moments together... didn't we?

Pathetic. I was pathetic. I would've cried if I could. But by then the full, awful weight of realisation was coiled inside me along with the fettuccine, like a maleficent caduceus. No need to press on with the taking of the hypocritic oath. And she? Well, she was so clearly going somewhere - if only back to Pete from Sales to sell herself short - that her very features were stretched back along the sides of the face, as if she were sitting not in a trattoria but a wind tunnel. The future was streaming past her downy cheeks, and I was slumping down in anticipation of the rickshaw crash, the entanglement of its rubber tyres with my own.

Twice dumped and I'm no longer in the least bit shy.

Continued tomorrow