Conversations with Ord

A short story by Will Self
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I was down to one friend, Keith, a former bank robber. We never talked about his bank robbing days - just as we never discussed the fact that although he'd long since said he would, he'd never got round to decorating his flat. A bucket, ladder, roller, tray and drip-stained cans of emulsion had stood in the vestibule for years now, as if it were they that were the decorative scheme.

There was a dark, unpalatable truth hunched behind the unused decorating gear. Keith's flat was furnished with what passed for the acme of modernity circa 1973. An oval glass table with steel legs like an inverted coat- tree dominated the sitting room, together with a vinyl, kidney-shaped coffee table, and a three-seat divan upholstered in vomit-coloured, oatmeal- textured fabric.

In the queered corridor, yuccas loitered, like the equatorial cousins of absentee triffids. In the bathroom, dusty, slatted cabinets spilled old liniment and disgorged silvery tongues lumpy with aspirin. I never dared to enter the bedroom.

Keith, presumably, had thought his furniture, when he bought it in the early Eighties, to be amazingly futuristic, quite simply "out of this world". And it was - out of his world - because he had (as he once quietly remarked to me when I made some slight aside about glam rock, or Camden Lock, or Pol Pot) missed the Seventies, somewhat.

Keith and I had a certain rapport - we were both formidable mnemonists. Keith was the first man I've ever been able to play Go-Chess mentally with. Go-Chess is a game of my own invention in which at any point during an orthodox mental chess game, either opponent can suddenly change the game to Go. Both players must then transform the 64-square internalised chess board into a 361-intersection Go board, substitute the appropriate number (ten for a queen, eight for a castle, etc, etc) of Go stones for each of his remaining chess pieces, and then congruently configure them. Obviously, if you were black in the chess game you remain so in the Go game.

Keith was dead good at mental Go-Chess, something he put down to his many years of solitary confinement. "Did you do a lot of systematised abstract thinking and memory exercises when you were in solitary?" I asked him after he'd beaten me at mental Go-Chess for the third time in succession. "No," he replied flatly, and limped on along Battersea embankment - we invariably played while strolling - a great, broken bear of a man.

If we were tiring of Go-Chess, we'd invent imaginary dialogues. One Keith particularly liked was entitled "Conversations with Ord". Ord was a general in his eighties, who had fought in every important campaign of the first fifty years of the twenty-first century. Flamboyant, openly homosexual, violent, brilliant, Ord had something to say about anything and everything. I liked being Ord, but Keith was masterful; when he was being Ord, and I played the role of Flambard - his reticent biographer and amanuensis - we could often stay in character as far upriver as Teddington Lock, or as far down river as the remains of the Millennium Dome.

It was the only relief we ever had from the suffocating confines of south-east London. Keith and I inhabited a city of dusty scraps of park; Thirties blocks built round scraps of park; Fifties blocks built behind oblong strips of park; and Sixties, Seventies and Eighties blocks built over-toppling, or actually within, parks. Degenerate parks with piddling water features and knock-kneed, demented loggias. In Vauxhall Park, which was particularly favoured by street alcoholics, there was a crappy file of miniature buildings - house, church, cinema - done crudely but durably in emulsion-on-concrete; which had been subjected to miniature vandalism. Of course, this was as nothing to Ord, who'd seen the mud-flats of the Dhaleswari turn to lava as his helicopter gunships took out the stilted shanty towns of Dacca. Nothing at all.

The pretext for our park life - as for so many others - was a dog. Dinah, Keith's shambolic Dalmatian. "Isn't it bizarre," Keith said, in character as Ord, "that you two grown men have essentially devolved to becoming the dependants of this hound whom you parasitise upon. Perhaps you should become faggots and hang out at the Hoist - you couldn't be doing better if you tried."

At the Hoist, a club in the arch, arse end of the old, battered Vauxhall railway viaduct, sado-masochistic homosexuals chained each other up behind the bar and buggered, whilst epicene opera critics stood at the bar awaiting the arrival of Jean-Paul Gaultier and discussing the novels of Theophile Gautier. It hardly mattered whether you swung in the Hoist or not, for it was almost always oppressive and dark in this city. It didn't matter if we trolled around Battersea Park, or ranged along the underside of the Power Station, and the Badlands of the Thames Littoral, there was no escaping this insistent claustrophobia.

Even in high summer the sky, particulate with near-visible, Brownian motions of lead exhaust droplets and other heavy metals, bore down us. To walk the tip-tilted streets of Lavender Hill was like struggling into unfamiliar underwear. Everything grated. Sometimes, stopping for a meat patty at a West Indian takeaway, and feeding a few scraps of virulent, yellow pastry to Dinah's wet, black maw, I would despair of myself. Why had I found it necessary to exile so many people I had once been intimate with, to the very periphery of my acquaintance? To begin with, the outer circle had been easy to abandon. A few unanswered phone calls, a flannelled date (not exactly a stand-up ... but almost), and these red dwarf friendships would wink then die. But for the more established, verdant relationships, persistent neglect had been required. It could take as long as nine months of evasions, unspoken intimacies, unshared items of gossip, and unattended parties, for these to wither by the roadside of life. But they did, eventually.

I had been distressed to realise, in, as it were, the white heat of the purges, when trains were headed off to my personal Siberia almost daily, that there were still many connections in my life that remained unbroken; connections that would require active hacking away at. So it was that I insulted those I had formerly embraced; I traduced those I had formerly exalted; and I failed to recognise former lovers in the bakery aisle of Nine Elms Sainsbury's. There were no friends, only those who had yet to be estranged; and my friend's friend - was my enemy.

It was arrogance, naturally; an arrogance that was so solid within me it was tactile. I actually felt superior to myself - let alone others. I would hunch on the corner of the tilting heap of mattresses which served me as a bed and pinch the slack flesh on the insides of my knees, whilst muttering "Not good enough ... Not good enough." On an average morning, as I was actually performing this ritual of superiority, my landlady, Mrs Benson, would call me from downstairs: "It's Keith on the phone for you! He's wondering whether you'd fancy a walk?"

She would insist on this anonymous intimacy; refusing to refer to me by name, because she still felt close to me. And it was true that aeons before we had experienced a peg-in-hole contiguity. So much so that when my marriage broke up, and she was married, possessed of husband, child and too much house; I was offered the low-rent use of the attic suite, a milk-carton of space, close in summer, distant in winter, in which the possessions salvaged from my former life looked like just that. Fat-bellied planes wallowed down through lowering reddish cloud slabs, threatening time after time to plop through the skylight, as I lay below on my horsehair, foam, and sprung slab. Even Keith was a relief.

"What d'jew think of the balloon?" he said, one day in late summer when we'd planned another MI6 beach party. The balloon had been up for some weeks, tethered four hundred feet above Vauxhall Cross; we had yet to visit its moorings. From where we currently were, traversing Battersea Park north-west to south-east, we could see its awning belly nudging against the defunct cooling towers of the Power Station. Foreshortened London.

"Pssht! Dunno. It's a balloon, I s'pose. Can you go up in it?"

"Course you can; what would be the fucking point in hoisting a balloon four hundred feet over London if you couldn't go up in it?"

"Dunno. Observation of some kind - I mean it's right next to MI6."

It didn't seem such an absurd notion to me. If the not-so secret service could occupy a ludicrous post-modern wedding cake of an office building - all beige concrete and duff finial cypresses - immediately abutting Vauxhall Bridge; then why shouldn't they have a hot-air-powered eye in the sky? Anyway, I liked the MI6 building. There was a tiny roomlet of riverine beach right next to it, a notch of the way we were. The oddest spindrift and driftwood and trash got caught up in it. Keith and I would build little fires out of this at low tide, sit round them as dusk fell, toasting

marshmallows and staring moodily across the ruched brown river to the Tate Gallery on the opposite shore; whilst Dinah leadenly frolicked on the compacted silt.

"Nah, it's a tourist thing. It's a tenner to go up - maybe we should do it? We could leave Dinah with that nice Australian lad in Majestic Wine -"

"- But why - why do we want to go up in it?"

"To see the city you pillock. To orientate ourselves. Jesus, we spend most of our waking hours trudging round this bit of London, why not see it from the air?"

"No thanks, I feel hideously oriented already. About the only thing I could think of doing in that balloon is holding a debate -"

"- A balloon debate? What's that?"

For the first time in weeks I'd caught all of Keith's attention. I could tell this because it was his habit, when his massive cerebellum fell properly in gear, to call Dinah over, put her on the lead, and then walked with her closely to heel, as if he were a blind man entering his seeing-eye dog for Cruft's. Some baggy pubescents stared at us as we bisected the Queenstown Road roundabout: big, little and spotty. Side by side by side.

"So, this balloon debate." We'd gained the far side and were marching under the railway bridge which mounts the appendix of Prince of Wales Drive. "Would it be like a parachute debate?"

"Quite so."

"The loser would ... what? Be thrown out?"

"I'd rather hoped they would have the decency to jump, but yes, if necessary they would be thrown."

"Had you any subjects in mind?"

"Mnm."

"Participants?"

"Err, you - me obviously; and Sharon Crowd."

"Ha-ha! I see, back to that are we, Sharon- bloody-Crowd."

"There's no need for you to indulge in tmesis -"

"Oh no, not when you have so conspicuously already."

There it was, out in the open, the nub of Keith's and my friendship, and perhaps also the root of our dreary, common isolation. Keith had had an affair with Sharon Crowd. They broke it off, and, without knowing the whys and wherefores, I then had an affair with Sharon Crowd. In due course this ended and she went back to Keith. Hence the tmesis - one word shoved between the legs of another. Months later, at about the last party I ever attended, this lowering bear of a man, came up, prodded me in the back while I was putting guacamole on a paper plate, and bellowed: "Why don't you just put your prick up my arse and cut out the middle woman!"

This was Keith, who was, by now, once more sans Sharon Crowd. I never discovered whether he felt genuinely aggrieved about the loss of Sharon Crowd. If, like some true romantic, his flesh crawled from the wanting of her, his belly gurgled at the thought of her belly, and his eyes watered when he contemplated the everlasting loss of her. In truth, this would be difficult to imagine, for if Sharon Crowd had done anything, specifically, to Keith, it was shaft him. Yup, the apposite character of his "middle woman" observation was underscored by the fact that "betrayal" was engraved on this particular woman's heart.

Bax, an ageing, hairy, dwarfish, once very successful novelist, who had been Keith and mine's friend - and who'd formalised the initial introduction - also knew Sharon Crowd, carnally and otherwise. Bax said of her: "You've got to admire her style. In the Sixties when you'd see girls weeping on the stairs outside parties, because they'd had some man do them wrong, you'd also see the odd smattering of doleful, lachrymose boys - they were Sharon's."

"But Bax," I'd objected, "you can't champion a woman solely on the basis that she's a cruel deceiver - "

"- Can, and do. Also she's clever - and still remarkably handsome, that counts for something." And at this juncture he had leant forward to apply himself to a roll-up, dislodging the perilous quiff of hair that rode atop his head, so that it curtained his puckish face. This was Bax's method of indicating that a subject was closed. But Sharon hadn't done unto Bax as she had unto Keith - and me. Keith had had a promising little second career as an academic until Sharon had exposed the minor flannelling of some of his research - she had no respect for pillow talk, and she was a chalk-pusher herself. As for me, well, just a little matter of ten years' marriage down the tubes. I lost sleep with Sharon Crowd three times - we have no need of euphemisms here - and it felt worth it. Her lovemaking was a peculiar combination of the tender and the athletic; frequently, having engendered a bruise, she would lay her thin lips against it.

At a Christmas party in Clapham, given by mutual friends with a mortgage the same size as our own, Sharon Crowd approached Maeve, my then wife: "Your husband's penis really is most astonishing," was her entree. And when Maeve failed to respond to this sally, unable to recognise any connection between said organ and this washed out, rather stringy, fiftyish blonde, Sharon Crowd continued: "I mean the way that, when erect, it bends so exaggeratedly to the left and then tips up at the end. In a nose you'd call it retrousse." Comprehension seeped into Maeve's face like spilt milk into a J-cloth - not that she was the crying sort.

"You mean to say you've been f---ing my husband?" Maeve made a fisheye lens of her wine glass through which to exaggerate the truth. The conversation I'd been having nearby with the host about free-range chickens stuttered, then died.

"Yup. I've stopped now though ... he isn't ... he isn't very versatile is he?"

That hurt. I'd fed it to her in every conceivable position - not that there was any question of conception; Sharon Crowd got me to put her cap in for her. It made her come. Then we'd copulated with her on top, with me on top, standing up, sitting, leaning and falling. I thought I'd been leading this, but it turned out to be Sharon Crowd's merry dance. "Face it," she said to me months later when the lawyers' letters had stopped coming, "if the marriage had been any good it would've survived my intervention - so you'd have to say what I did was for the best. After all, it's not as if there were children involved."

"Excepting possibly you." This came from Keith, who was devoted to Maeve, and blamed me for the whole debacle. Sharon Crowd, in Keith's eyes, remained mysteriously pure, apart from this little matter of destroying his career.

The two of us were lunching with Sharon Crowd. Despite - or perhaps because of - her betrayals, Keith and I remained close to Sharon Crowd. One argument for this was that her flat - which was in a block next to her place of work, South Bank University - was incredibly convenient for our walks. The other was that Sharon made us delicious meals. Pasta with ginger and tomato; or fresh sardines swimming in lemon juice; or artichoke hearts in melted butter; or whatever. White bourgeois woman tapas. She prepared the food in tiny Le Creuset dishes, in her tiny galley of a kitchen and brought it to Keith and I, where we sat, siting down the Wandsworth Road towards Nine Elms.

When the balloon arrived, and was winched into the municipal heavens, we had a spanking view. "Have you been up in it?" Keith queried, poking a fork laden with bruschetta at the balloon, which from this vantage was well clear of the surrounding city, free from the taint of the park below and motionless in the typically pewter sky.

"No, why should I?" Sharon poured me another glass of Cote-rotie - there was no faulting her as a hostess.

"He and I are holding a balloon debate." The bruschetta wavered round to me.

"What's that - like a parachute debate?"

"Yup."

"And what's the subject?"

At this Keith cherryed-up: it was one thing to disrespect Sharon Crowd in the privacy of our mournful promenades - quite another to do so to her face. I, however, felt a delirious rush of irresponsibility, a carefree loss of all self-protective instincts: "You."

"I'm sorry?" Sharon Crowd's fine brow (it really was fine, that brow could have got her a supporting role in a Jane Austen novel. It was narrow, it was flawless, hair wisped upon it) creased.

"We're going to debate your conduct towards us - Keith and me that is."

"Conduct?" She really couldn't have been more credulous yet insouciant if she hadn't tried. "Let me get this straight, you troglodytes -"

"That isn't nyum-nyum fair ..." This was from Keith, the long years of imprisonment had left him able to do indignation and tomato salad simultaneously.

"Nomads then. Yes, you two nomads are going to debate - to the death - my conduct towards you?"

"If Bax is to be believed," having taken on the challenge I was determined to push this as far it would go, "many many hundreds of similar offences should be taken into consideration."

Silence rose at this point - save for more munching, squidging, cracking lunching. Over Sharon Crowd's shoulder the painful, concrete outcropping of South Bank University jutted with brutal certitude - not unlike Sharon Crowd's chin, which, although small, was impressively cleft. Like facial buttocks.

"You never had any academic prospects to speak of Keith," Sharon Crowd's voice was brusque. "Your research capabilities were negligible, and your ability to teach was severely compromised by the fact that the majority of your students were born in a decade of which you have no direct knowledge. I was doing you a fa-"

"- What?!" Keith couldn't suppress this yelp.

"A favour. You don't know your own mind, you would've been humiliated. Publicly humiliated. You'd have found yourself worse off than you were already - and certainly worse off than you are now." Keith hung his head, scuffed with the bumpy passage of the years. It mattered not whether what Sharon Crowd said was just - or even simply right - it was that Keith lacked the will, or the ability, to resist. He had told me that on occasion she still came by his place and "did things" with him. His imprecision matched my own unwillingness to imagine what such things could be.

Sharon Crowd turned on me. She was well turned out; now convenor of the business studies department, she undertook many consultancies and appeared on late night news shows, debating matters of public import. Her burnish was digital, televescent; her suits were severely appropriate; her tits were non-existent. When we'd lost sleep together her nipples had been astonishing, smooth, pink cones of erectile tissue, perhaps they were gone now? For I couldn't imagine them, all I could visualise beneath her tailored breastplate was smooth, nippleless skin. "And you, you're the originator of this motion?"

"You're a tyrant Sharon; you may even be corrupt." Her eyes zeroed in on the level of wine in my glass.

"You're probably drunk, and therefore not worth talking to - but let's say you are. You think I mistreated you do you?"

"Sharon, given the benefit of hindsight, the passage of the years, after many a summer - all that jazz ..." I inhaled more wine, chiefly to wind her up, "... I can say with some authority, and due respect, that at the end of the day you righteously f---ed me over. Did it to me up the arse with a f---ing telegraph po-"

"- You are drunk - offensive as well. Get him out of here Keith."

Later on I was wigging out the security cameras ranged along the fence bordering the MI6 beach. Thing was, if you poised behind a pillar, the camera, which was tracking your movement, would become paralysed, wavering in the place you ought to have been - "Like me and Sharon Crowd!" I shouted over to Keith who was paddling in the tidal wrack with Dinah: six legs ankletted by nylon twine, sodden leaves, smoothened wood.

"What?"

"The security camera - it's obsessed by me, but I just think it's a machine ... well ... I blew that didn't I?" I climbed over the fence, descended a flight of five concrete steps, scrunched across the shingle to where man and dog stood.

"Not necessarily." Keith sounded gnomic - he was in a serious mood, like when he referred to the unnameable decade.

"She's never going to go up in the balloon now. Not now she knows we want to chuck her out."

"There are several considerations. She may not think we're serious." He trod on an already tessellated pane of glass, set in a severed frame, then pulled Dinah and me aside. "Then again, she may be so proud she wishes to defy us; and a third - and I think strong - likelihood is that she'll do it because Bax wants her to."

"Bax?"

"I have considerable sway with him y'know."

I looked behind us, through the defile of buildings and across four carriageways, to where the balloon crouched behind the Vauxhall viaduct. It had been moored for the night, a cumbersome satellite of the global city, now mugged by gravity. It was hot all right, and it was bright enough still, but the light came welling up from an unidentifiable place, like the blood from an internal injury. "Come on then," said Keith, after a long while, "let's play Go-Chess."

"I don't want to play Go-Chess -"

"Let's have a dialogue then - I'll be Ord." And as we passed on along Lambeth Walk, Ord regaled me with his tales of the suppression of the dog-headed jockstrap warlords of Minnesota - the most feared motorcycle gang of the 2030s.

I met Bax in the Beer Engine, a pub in Stockwell. It was an awful dive, yet Bax loved it so much that they kept his mug hanging behind the bar. It was a ghastly mini-stein, with a witch's face bulging from the nacreous glaze. Bax drank light and bitter out of it. He was a one-man preservation league. I was having a particularly arrogant day. My arrogance was so palpable to me that my belly bulged uncomfortably, inflated by superiority. Bax noted the odd way I was canted on the leatherette bench: "Whass the matter?" he slurred through fag 'n' beer.

"Arrogance."

"Flatulence?"

"Arrogance - I've an inflated opinion of myself."

"Whichever it is - they're both calculated to drive people away."

"I know that."

Bax fell to building another roll-up behind his safety hair-curtain. I fell to examining the wristlets he always wore. These protruded from the cuffs of his denim shirt and extended as far as his knuckles. They looked to be made of either very light coloured leather, or some peculiar rubber. It was impossible to tell whether they were a fashion accessory or an orthopaedic brace. A bit like Bax's novels really.

"Whassat?"

"I didn't say anything."

"Sharon says she'll go up in the balloon with us on Sunday. This Sunday."

"Really? And the debate?"

"Of course - that's why she's going. We will debate the motion: `This balloon considers Sharon Crowd to be thoroughly immoral'. I assume you will be proposing and Keith seconding?"

"S'pose so."

"Sharon will reject the motion - obviously - and I will support her. If you win, one of us takes the dive. If we win, the reverse will be the case."

"I see ..." This was a turn-up. I wasn't at all sure about Keith's position if his life was set against my own. "... And who did you have in mind to deliberate?"

"Why, whoever is operating the balloon I suppose, and whoever else is taking the trip with us, tourists and such like."

"Bax says that whomsoever is operating the balloon, and any others - tourists and such - who're there at the time, should deliberate. On the matter of Sharon, that is -"

"- Or you."

"Or me, or you, or Bax."

"Bax never said `whomsoever'."

"Nor he did - but my opportunities for such usages are under threat of curtailment."

"Yeah, yeah. Well, that's that then."

"They'll never cooperate - the people in the balloon. They'll freak out."

"I'll handle it."

"Really?"

"I'll handle it." He rounded on me - I was reminded of Ord.

"Are you in character ...? As Ord I mean."

"No, of course not, you prat." Off he went, Dinah's nails clicking behind him, as he traversed the cracked lozenge of paving beside the Vauxhall Tavern. The balloon was coming down for the night; from where I stood, it was apparently assuming a housing in a giant egg cup of masonry. Foreshortened London - there was never any escaping it.

They chose the week before the balloon debate occurred to begin demolishing the Nine Elms Cold Store. This huge, concrete box - which closely resembled a beehive of the rectangular variety - dominated the messy confluence of Nine Elms Lane, the Wandsworth Road and the South Lambeth Road. It was a defiant roar of Uber-solidity, which had squatted, radiating chill, for the last twenty years. Now they bashed a big hole in its side, and the rupture festered with cracked slabbing, gristly steel reinforcing, eruptions of maculate rendering.

It was easy enough to get on to the demolition site - which, of course, Keith, Dinah and I did. Just as we'd always wandered round the Battersea Power Station site with similar impunity, dodging hard hats in order to wander, like middle-aged Start-Rite kids, between the lowering chancels of red brick. There was now an appealing congruence between the two structures: both knocked in at the knees, like victims of summary war time, execution. Although neither Keith nor I was aware of any plans by Pacific Rim consortia, or former Tory party treasurers, to transform the Cold Store, the way they were trumpeted for the Power Station.

But the Power Station was in real trouble; the consortia had come and gone, the rim had tightened then relaxed. The nave of the building, open to the dank sky, was profaned by abandon. Where once erg upon erg had been burnt into being, there were only pigeon droppings, and the strange cries of bungee jumpers, falling from a davit erected over the river, shitting themselves as they plunged.

The Cold Store was ruptured, and in between walks I did my best to put my affairs in order. Perhaps, I mused, on leaving a particularly downbeat meeting with the solicitor who was drawing up my will, this is why we behave in this fashion, push our lives into these impasses.

It's so that we may usefully employ phrases such as "I did my best to put my affairs in order." Perhaps. Anyway, the will was a thin document: to Mrs Benson my pile of old mattresses; an envelope stuffed with old foreign currency for a brother I'd neglected; boxes of old paperbacks to charity stores - along with my old clothes. My money, such as it'd been, had long since been frittered. I would be leaving the world in a state of some nakedness; some bareness of impedimenta, or affectation. "It's hardly worth your while to register this will."

Said the solicitor, "It costs to have me write it, it costs to deposit it. To be frank - this stuff is near worthless."

"I don't like the idea of the state getting hold of anything - anything at all."

"I see."

"I would scream in eternity if I thought a single battered paperback or mismatched sock was contributing - in its material essence - to the power of the State."

"I see." The solicitor was looking at me with mounting suspicion. "Tell me, is there any particular reason why you should be making a will now?"

"No, no reason. Mortality bears down on us all though - doesn't it?"

It was gusty for late summer - but clear on the Sunday morning appointed for the debate. Keith and Sharon Crowd stood on the pavement and called up to me through cupped hands, as if we were children, embarking on a morning's al fresco fun. I hurried down, grabbing the parcel I'd spent the previous night preparing. This I slung on to my shoulders as I came out of Mrs Benson's front door, but neither Sharon Crowd, nor Keith, appeared to notice. One of the Benson kids shouted after us, but his words were caught up and mangled by the passage of an early lorry. We walked across Albert Square and down the Clapham Road towards the Oval. About level with the mouth of Fentiman Road, Bax fell in beside us and we walked on, in silence, line abreast across the pavement, like band members in a pop video, or tatty, urban Samurai. There was silence between us, an unpleasant, brooding silence.

Marching around the curve of the Oval, and then down the grimy stretch of Harleyford Road to Vauxhall Cross, the tension began to increase. "Where're you gonna leave Dinah?" I asked Keith, whom I could hear inside my head, grinding his dentures. "With the Australian lad in Majestic - obviously."

"Oh yeah - yeah, sorry."

"Why don't you leave him with doorman of the Hoist?" said Bax - his first words of the day - "I expect it's still open." But Keith didn't rise to this, and the four of us trudged on as doggedly as the dog. The air may have been in expressionist motion: spreading sheaves of loose paper, packing tape and leaves in broad brushstrokes across the stretched oblongs of sky - but the ulterior element was clotted with its own plenitude, as ever. Full of itself. It wouldn't be such a bad thing to leave this behind, this thick, brick viaduct; these ancient pubs; those cacophonous motorcycle showrooms; these ragamuffin squeegee merchants; those Sunday saloons, stacked with well-dressed families of bolsters, on their way to shop in Willesden, or Cheam. The whole spaghetti junction of Vauxhall Cross, with its myriad of transport conduits, walled up with clay, dashed with grit, grouted with grot. Worming through the world.

Sharon Crowd, Bax and I stood on the false hillock that runs along Goding Street; a lipoma of scurvy grass, sticks planted in wire baskets, and sweet shit. The balloon was being unlimbered for the day, its securing cables untethered by New Zealander travellers and Canadian post-graduate students. They worked efficiently. "It seems fairly windy," I said to Bax. "Maybe they won't go up."

"That would be a shame," he replied - but he was distracted, his yellow nails scrabbled at one of his therapeutic wristlets. Sharon Crowd was looking magnificent. She'd elected to wear a brown Nehru jacket and commensurate brown trousers. The ensemble did her every compliment available. Her hair was scraped back severely; her lips were triumphantly attenuated - barely there at all. She and Bax went on ignoring my parcel.

When Keith came back we advanced down the hillock and crossed the park to the balloon enclosure. A prefab hut stood at a gap in the wire fence. Inside they were selling tickets and souvenirs to a clutch of people. I couldn't really take them in. I was getting very antsy. We all paid for our tickets separately - Keith, Sharon Crowd, Bax and I - then filed out of the hut and along a plank walkway to the balloon's giant basket. It was an open square of quite loosely fenced walkway - not a basket as such. It was Wright Brothers rather than Montgolfier; I suppose I'd been hoping for a gondola with silk embroidered panels, a few show goats and a vicuna for experimental company. But there was little time for quibbling, because one Antipodean took my ticket and tore it, another ushered me on to the structure, and a third cast off.

The ascent was phenomenally fast, as quick as a lift. On the far side of the platform from me, across a fifteen-foot gap, a child squirmed and protested in her mother's arms: "Mummy I'm scared aoooh! Mummy - I don't want to go up! Mu-uuummy!" F---ing abuser, I thought to myself. "Sadist," I said aloud. But then I noticed that Sharon Crowd and Bax weren't on board. Together with the abusing mother and child there were a couple of teenagers in white anoraks, to my right there was a young Middle Eastern couple. The Antipodean, who was using a length of chain to operate the balloon's burner from his station by the gate, was isolated. I looked down. Framed in the square of space was a rapid, reverse-zoom shot of the patch of Vauxhall Cross Park. It grew to encompass the hut, the lipoma, the Hoist, the ruff of weed growing on top of the Vauxhall Tavern, some boys having a kick- around, the figures of Sharon Crowd and Bax, tiny now, arm in arm, striding towards the Tube.

F---ing hell! I was down to one friend, Keith, a former bank robber. Although we'd never discussed his bank-robbing days. He was backed into the corner on the platform to my left, and as I looked on, awed, Brockwell Park disappeared below his shoulder, only to reappear beneath his feet. We were two hundred feet up and still rising. "So," Keith called over, "no debate. Didn't think they'd go through with it. We may as well just enjoy the ascent." His knuckles were white, his arms bent back to brace him, his purple windcheater riffled in the stiff breeze. "Or perhaps you'd like a game of Go-Chess to distract you - how like a Go- Chess board London is, from this elevation."

Keith turned to survey the city falling away beneath us; and I turned as well. The Antipodean chatting away, the gas burner roaring, the Middle Eastern couple hand-holding, the abused child - now whimpering - all were as nothing when set beside its lumpy enormity. Already we could see the burst boil of the Millennium Dome to the east, the greenery of Teddington Lock to the west. And now as we rose still higher, the streets of the city eerily unknotted themselves, straightened out to form a grid of many, many poignant intersections, places where the wrong stone had been laid. Medusa's writhing head had had the conditioner applied. "It is peculiarly like a Go-Chess board!" I shouted over to Keith, who was faint against the sharp sky. "- Although we'll have to begin with -"

"- Go!" shouted Keith - who was now in character as Ord. I took this to be an order - as I'm sure it was intended. We understood our secret mnemonics - Ord and I.

I unslung the linen parcel from my shoulders. The Middle Eastern couple backed away from me muttering. The man tried to look me in the eyes, attempting the command of me with his own, inner Ord. I evaded his beams, the woman's suitable beak, her black, flapping chador. I unpopped the poppers of the duvet cover, took out the fitted sheet parachute. The Antipodean shouted to the couple to move back towards me - they were unbalancing the platform. Ord gave a single bark of cruel laughter - and disappeared. How like the man. I got one foot up on the taut wire and swung myself over. The horizon tipped like a giant grey swell - and I fell, screaming, towards the periphery of my own acquaintance. t

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