I was doing a Ralph McTell with a bit of Jason Bourne mixed in for good measure.
Alone in a foggy city. The mist muffled noise and hid shady characters (everybody is a shady character in fog) until the moment they loomed at me from the swirling greyness. This was where the Jason Bourne bit came in. I kept a straight line down the centre of wide pavements whereas others hugged the safety under the lights from shop windows. Anyone making a beeline towards me was to be treated with suspicion; people can only pick your pocket if they get close. Melodramatic I’m sure, but I’ve been subconsciously doing this since early teens. Then it was due to a diet of Fleming, now Matt Damon is responsible.
A gathering crowd suggests something interesting might be going on. I’ve four hours to kill so ‘something interesting’ seems like a way of killing time. I guess it’s some sort of street theatre. As I squeeze between grizzled men in oversized jackets which smell like they’ve taken far too long to dry I realise they don’t look like the sort of crowd that would gather to see a mime artist enact Les Mis.
They’re quietly and patiently queueing for a soup kitchen.
I give up my place in the queue to someone more needy. True, I haven’t eaten yet but there’s budget eating in London and budget eating.
Don’t ask me why but I’m drawn to side streets, dark and dangerous in the oppressive mist. Do ask me why. I need to pee and if I can’t find a loo in the side street at least it will be more discreet if I’m unable to go on any further… if you know what I mean.
My meanderings lead to Charing Cross. At this time on a Sunday night it’s unnervingly quiet. If by now you think I’m a nervous wee soul, I’m not. But I do have an over-active imagination. There’s something desperate about empty train stations, and I was desperate.
A sign informs me that a machine leading to the toilet only takes 50p coins. I don’t have any. With unconcealed urgency in my voice I try negotiating with a member of staff. I’ll happily pay a pound. He lets me through the turnstile for nothing. Relief.
Now I can concentrate on finding somewhere to eat. The irony is that the need to find a toilet stopped me from deciding where to eat… where there would have been a toilet. Hello catch 22.
I pick a place that does overpriced fish and chips; overpriced for anywhere else but London. The fish is good, the chips are good, the mushy peas are awful. Southerners can’t do mushy peas. I wash them down with London Pride. Eating alone feels awkward. I pretend to read my paper but end up nosying at those around me. A couple diagonally opposite look like they might be on a first date. The laughter is forced, the conversation stumbles. A lone woman at the window looks more comfortable at being alone than I feel. But then, she has a window seat. That’s like having a TV to watch.
I endure the meal and decide to relocate to surroundings I’m more comfortable with, a pub. But choosing a suitable one takes some consideration. The last I’d walked into (at 5pm) had been full of drunken diamond geezers whistling and dancing badly to naff sounds from the 60s. I’ve no problem with that, but they wanted me to laugh at their antics. I’m northern and they weren’t funny. I can’t fake it.
I find one which looks interesting, cosy and not populated by unfunny southern stereotypes. It has a photo of the Queen Mum pulling a pint. It has lots of other distracting things on its walls. I order an ale, sit on a comfy seat and spread out my paper.
My phone buzzes. It’s A, who at this moment is all warm and glitzy at the British Guild of Travel Writers Awards dinner in the Savoy.
‘I just won travel blogger of the year award!!!!’ It says.
‘Fuck me. Fan-bloody-tastic.’ I reply.
I toast a quiet ‘congratulations’ and settle in to enjoy my pint. This is a big deal. An award from respected writers is a very big deal. Massive. It’s a totally unexpected and wonderful surprise.
I take another sip and realise there’s someone at my side. It’s the barman.
“It’s last orders,” he tells me. “We’ll be closing soon.”
I look at my phone. It’s 8.50pm.
“At 9pm on a Sunday night? That’s ridiculous. I thought this was the city that never sleeps?”
“That’s New York,” he replies.
I’m on the streets again and I realise a) my phone battery is nearly exhausted and b) I don’t actually have a lot of money on me.
Back to Charing Cross. A train station must have somewhere to give my ailing phone a boost. It’s essential as I need it to make arrangements to meet A after the dinner. I ask a guard.
“On the train.”
“But I’m not going anywhere.”
“It doesn’t leave for 15 mins, you can charge it till then.”
The guy’s a star. He leads me through compartments until we find a socket. I plug in and watch the clock nervously. I don’t want to accidentally end up in Birmingham. I don’t deliberately want to end up in Birmingham either.
The compartment is empty save for a man in a flat cap who’s strumming gently on a guitar.
It’s nice. It’s soothing. It’s surreal.
Tick, tock, tick tock. That’s the sound in my head. In truth there are no clocks counting down anywhere. My bottle goes at 15% charged and I leave the train.
Next to get some cash. I pick an ATM that doesn’t look as though it has been fiddled with or which has any dubious souls lurking around nearby. My constant checking of my surroundings makes me look like the most dubious soul in the vicinity.
The machine sucks in my card and I key in the pin.
“YOUR CARD HAS BEEN WITHELD, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR BANK” the thieving bastard of a machine advises me.
I stand totally and completely dumbfounded. There is no reason at all why it should do this. I press buttons indiscriminately, hoping for a miracle. I look for an emergency call button… anything.
This is a disaster.
I stand staring at the deviant machine as if something might happen, knowing nothing will. It’s gone and it’s going to be an arse to sort it out.
My phone buzzes again. It’s A. The dinner is over and it’s time to pick her up and walk her home through the fog-filled streets of London.
She’s on air. I’m in a very dark place.
I can’t burst that bubble. I’ll tell her about the cash card tomorrow.
It occurs to me I’ve been robbed on the streets of London, not by the poor souls who struggle to survive on the streets, but by one of the city’s smart banks.
How very Britain 2015 is that?