Intimations of mortality in the early hours

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS finally happened. Late but inevitable, mortality has come to call; not to cart anyone off, not this time. Just to say hello, like a soap-opera bore; coo-ee, can't stop, pop back and catch you later.

It happened in the middle of the night. It always does, I'm told. 4.30am, lowest ebb, life below the high-water mark, wracked and barren in a litter of jawbones, driftwood and exoskeletons. Deep sleep is the best we can hope for, but it's just an illusion of depth. We huddle in the amniotic shallows, and the slightest disturbance can hurl us up on to the wet sand, gasping and drowning in the oxygen of consciousness.

A dream washed me up. Someone in the dream had asked me to fly a C-130 Hercules, which I've never flown, not really, but of course I had said, "No problem, piece of cake, off we go", and then I'd frozen in dream-panic, taxiing endlessly up and down a Burmese jungle airstrip to avoid committing the thing to flight, then finally deciding to drive the bugger to Chiang Mai and of course going straight over the edge of a mountain.

I sometimes wonder about the subconscious. Freudian or Jungian analysts would probably have all sorts of ideas about the wellspring of such a dream, but my own theory is that it was a direct consequence of spending the previous evening with a buccaneering Australian adventurer whom I had met in Melbourne and who had now turned up in London and wanted to meet for a drink. The word "a" in that context is plural - more plural than you could possibly imagine - and by 3.30am we were both blotto, swaying at the bar of an underground drinking club near Carnaby Street while a giantess sung Tin Pan Alley standards, accompanied by a pianist who looked like an angry Wittgenstein, and a beaming superannuated hoofer bent by age and arthritis into a Groucho crouch.

They were splendid, and we were splendid, too. It was like the old days, when puritanical licensing laws paradoxically created a brotherhood of those who toil in the shadow of the corkscrew, underground, hidden-away, naughty, raffish, only barely legal; when civilian above-ground barmaids were trained to purse their lips; when if you wanted wine you might as well ask to sodomise the dog; and when people treated each other with that horrible, stroppy, English rudeness, once endemic, still celebrated in EastEnders: "Yeah?" "Says who?" "What you want, then?"

Below ground (because all drinking clubs were below ground, even when they weren't), different rules applied, a perpetual, if jittery, Saturnalia where the laws did not run. Drinks were large ones, and optics scarce. People said "Hello, darlin' " and sounded as though they meant it. The barmaids were confidential, remembered your name, had a Past and became steadily more alluring as the evening wore on. Fur-tippetted women, unsteady on their stools, said that you were a nice-looking young man, bet you had no trouble finding girlfriends, put their bony hand on your knee and told you about their beatings at the hands of their husband ("Shiftless, he was"), their hysterectomy and their little flat round the corner. Actual sin was seldom committed, though always fresh on the unwritten agenda the next day; you were always just one more drink away from an Experience.

Then the pub licensing laws were changed, and the underground clubs vanished, or so I thought. But here we were, in 1996, and the tradition was still alive. Photographs of members inexplicably dressed in camiknickers and stockings lined the walls. Friday was open to members of an affiliated club, though nobody was sure what the affiliated club was. The ritual of Signing The Book was carefully preserved. The barmaid - a tiny erotic dynamo battling against chronology - refilled your glass whenever empty, taking the right money from the pile in front of you until the pile ran out or you fell off your stool.

At around 2:55am, the Australian fell victim to her charms and began to make polite but unambiguous advances. She told him of her schoolgirl uniforms, her whips, her boots, her corsets. "They used to love it, my boyfriends," she said. "I've still got all the stuff in my flat." The testosterone began to flow. He spoke of Vietnam. He spoke in Vietnamese, fluently. I, too, spoke in Vietnamese, which I cannot speak at all, although the Australian was impressed with my fluency and we had an interesting chat. We agreed that the highlands of the Golden Triangle were rich in rubies, and the warlords and god-men not such bad chaps when you got to know them. We planned to get hold of a C-130 Hercules, which I would fly to a mountain airstrip and return laden with jewels and narcotics, to enjoy a relaxing debauch in the brothels of Soi Cowboy before handing over the residue of the profits to our womenfolk. He had done this before; I had not, but it seemed to me a fine, rich, rewarding, and, yes, manly way of life. I said I hadn't flown a Hercules, but we both agreed that, hell, it was only another aeroplane.

An hour later, in my blameless bed, Death came to call. This time he was in the room with me, rooting among the carapaces and brackish grit of my imagination to show me the grinning skull of my own mortality. I realised it was not just on the cards; the hand had been dealt, unarguable as a punch in the face; it was really going to happen - tomorrow, or in 50 years, the date less important than the certainty.

I watched my nice woman snoring hopefully away, and instinct said: time to be careful, to settle down to babies, domesticity, and columns about washing-up-liquid disputes. But instinct was wrong. All that would have been fine once, but here on death row, sentenced without appeal, it is not enough. What's caution to the doomed? Better to face the truth. Hell, it can't be that hard to fly a bloody Hercules? !

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