Cancelled. I stood in the middle of the almost empty concourse, staring up at the displays, praying it was some sort of mistake. I dropped my case onto the marble tiles. I was tired and sweaty and my shins ached from the pounding I’d given them up Tottenham Court Road. The tendons in my right arm hummed and throbbed where I’d gripped my briefcase. In London, in leather soles, there’s no relief from the flagstones and concrete, the granite and tarmac. Even the grass in the parks is trimmed tight, hard and bald underfoot. I did a little jig to shift the weight from my sore, aching feet, like a nervous boxer readying for the first bell.
Someone groaned and I turned to see a woman with a frizz of auburn hair shake her fist at the screens. Every few minutes there were mutters or groans as the displays updated, but the last train north was still cancelled. I wanted to complain, to shout at someone, to tell them that I was on a warning: You dare miss Kate’s birthday. You just bloody dare. I scoured the ticket office and concourse, the Cornish pasty franchise and the entrance to the Tube, but no one from the railway was daft enough to show their face.
I kicked off my shoes and gasped as I pressed them against the cold tiles. A blister was forming at my heel and a hole had appeared in the black wool that pinched around my big toe. I’d neglected to cut my toenails. I always bloody forgot. I stretched up on tippy-toes as much as I could bear it and rocked back on my heels. I rubbed my spine and winced and was rewarded with a reflection in the window of a shop that sold French moisturisers. I looked a proper fright and wondered where the guy on my driver’s licence had gone, and the last twenty years with him. I had dark crescents under each eye; depression, the internet said and I wasn’t arguing. My hair needed a trim and was going to steel wool again at my ears. A dusting of dandruff lay about my shoulders and collar. The pockets and arse of my trousers sagged and, as I turned, I saw the seat was shiny. I was as wide form the side as the front. My jacket was shapeless from keys and phones and all the other shit I carried about and I’d fixed two new holes in my belt since Christmas.
I slumped against the locked-up information kiosk. Across the concourse an old fella in an orange tabard, with a greying mullet, three days’ stubble and a prison worth of keys hanging from his belt, pushed a huge broom in zig-zags, picking up paper cups and sweet wrappers and burger cartons. He had a slight stoop and his head seemed to sit at an odd angle as if he had a stiff neck. He used one of those cloth brooms that looked as if it’d got cuts of a candlewick bedspread stuck to it, that was meant to clean as it swept. I gave him a nod, but he didn’t spare me so much as a grunt. He whistled a tune from an ad I knew. Something classical, but I couldn’t say what. When I fancied a blast of the classics Charlotte had always changed the station. Gravy music, she called it. She said it was the stuff she’d been made to listen to at Sunday lunches while forced to chew on sprouts and pork crackling. He swept a little further, turned and saw he’d missed a shred of paper. It was barely a scrap, the silvery paper you got in fruit pastilles. He must’ve been sixty if he was a day, but, despite the stiff back or neck, he dipped like a ballerina, snatched at it and dropped it into his trolley. Pride in his work and for the minimum wage too. You had to admire that. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t say what. Perhaps he had a doppelganger keeping the streets clean up north. I’d always liked watching folk work. There’s a special pleasure in grabbing a coffee while some poor bugger has got to mend a gas pipe or dig a grave.
I grimaced as I trod back into my shoes. Groans came from the few of us that were left, jabbing at phones, cussing and praying for the impossible. Oh, hang on. A flicker. No. Milton Keynes was back on. Further north wasn’t happening. Well, that was it. My fingernails dug into the soft leather handle of my case. I wanted to tilt back my head and scream, but only the pigeons in the roof would hear. I chucked my case down, made to give it a boot like a footballer who’d been red-carded, and instantly regretted it as it clattered onto the tiles. A transport policeman stared at me from the first-class balcony. I nodded an apology and he folded his tattooed arms and shook his head. When I picked up my case he’d gone.
Something trembled in my jacket. I remembered my phone was on silent after Danby’s emergency six o’ clock. Given the news we’d be restructuring for the second time in three years I’d been too shocked to say anything. I’d have thought you of all people would have something to say, Tony. ‘Mm?’ was all I could manage. I’d found a pub off Fleet Street, sank I don’t know how many pints of London Pride and then the answers had all come to me. They always did when it was too late, didn’t they?
A reminder popped up in my diary. Kate’s birthday. Christ, what was I going to get for Kate? I’d have to trudge over to one of those shops that sold tea towels and keyrings or mouse mats with Tower Bridge and Big Ben on them. I wondered if a jigsaw of the Tube or a red London bus would get me off the hook. I’d never got the hang of what a daughter wanted. I hefted my case and looked for somewhere to sit, to think, but I couldn’t find a bench. There were no bins to be found either. It seems terrorists are winning the war when it comes to litter and sitting down.
I stepped outside, rubbing my hands together as my breath rose, silvery in the night sky. Night buses chugged at the traffic lights. A guy in a stripy sock hat and a long grey coat that could’ve belonged to a naval commander shuffled up, getting foetal among some crumpled newspapers. It’d be cold tonight, might even be frost. I dipped into my jacket pocket and smiled, remembering I’d given up. Two years since we’d decided I should stop but some moments are perfect for a sly drag.
‘Want one of mine?’ a voice said and I flinched.
I turned and saw the guy in the sock hat had vacated his bench and was offering me a smoke. He held out a hand as if begging for change. It was soiled, rimed with nicotine. A sorry roll-up lay limp in his palm.
‘I- I’m sorry I don’t,’ I said.
He tucked his thumbs in his belt. His eyes were watery with cold. ‘You looked like you did.’
‘I quit. She didn’t like the smoke in the house.’ He scratched at the corner of his mouth. I wondered why I was telling him this. He twirled a grubby finger at the plane trees in the square, the rooftops, the moon. ‘This is my living room. So, I can please myself.’ He rocked on his heels and seeing as he wasn’t going anywhere I said ‘Ah’ and gave him some loose change from my trouser pocket, picking out a chewing gum pellet. He shook the change in his fist, holding it to his ear and listening to it the way Kate did with seashells.
‘Never mind,’ he said. He looked me up and down, appraising me. ‘You could always try the-’ He scratched at his temple, named a few hotels in spitting distance. I thanked him and he went back to his bench. I walked as far as the path ran and feeling a little wobbly, gripped a railing in each fist at the end of the square. A drunk vomited into the gutter, clutching at an empty newsstand and gasping. His phone and his keys fell from his shirt pocket and he cursed and patted the pavement with his palms as if he were blind, cabs tooting and flashing their headlights as they shot past. I sat on a low wall, deflated now the beer had worn off, leaving me a sore head and a bursting bladder. I made for a bush in the corner of the square, dark and waxy-leaved like a rhododendron, and tugged at my flies as I half-ran, scared I’d wet myself. I had grey trousers on. I wasn’t risking a wet patch. There might be coppers about, could be CCTV, but it was dark and I didn’t care. I had to go. I stepped through a break in the canopy of leaves, adjusted myself and let a stream of my hot piss spatter the leaf mulch and litter. It steamed and made a ring of glistening foam where the jet struck the dark earth. It was such relief, such bliss to let go and for a few precious seconds I leaned back and stared up at the moon, feeling I was tiny and insignificant down here and my problems were pathetically small in a universe that stretched to infinity. For every star in the sky there’s a grain of sand on every beach in all the world, I’d told Kate once when I’d sat and read to her.
As I shook and zipped up, that bloke came past, hands in his pockets, whistling. He’d changed out of his work gear. My heart fluttered. I knew I’d clocked his walk before. At first, I didn’t want to believe it, but I was sure the cleaner with the belt full of keys was Colin Silvester. Col had something wrong with his neck or spine too. He’d had it for years. But Colin Silvester had left a pile of clothes at the riverbank. Seven years back that was and no one had ever seen him again.
I crouched behind the bush. He stood still, sniffed and listened, his back turned to me. Sirens drifted from the west, blokes shouted as they came out of a pub. He raised a hand and said: ‘I don’t have no money, so you’re wasting your time, kid.’
Kid. Col used to say kid. I came out from behind the bush, held my palms up to show him I meant no harm. My heart was pounding. ‘Colin. Colin Silvester,’ I said, unable to stop the croak in my throat.
His cheek twitched. His accent seemed to shift, switch southern. ‘Nah, mate. Don’t know what you mean.’
‘It is you. I’d know you anywhere.’
‘You got me mistaken chief.’
‘Chief? Come off it, Col. We played darts for how many years? It must be six, maybe seven….’
He ran a hand through a sweaty fringe. He wore a denim jacket, torn at the shoulders and dark jeans with great turn-ups. A voice in my head said it couldn’t be him, but he had the same birthmark on his chin, the same wiry hair that’d been left to grey and hang lank at the collar.
‘Got a cigarette?’ he said.
‘I don’t anymore.’
‘Then you’ve changed too.’ He took out a packet, handed me one and sparked up for both of us, cupping them from the wind. ‘I suppose this is the bit where I say I’ve been waiting for this to happen for years and get found out and now it’s finally happened….’ He waved a hand, took a long drag on his cigarette and let his words and his thoughts drift into the London night. ‘Too cold to stay out here.’
‘Where then?’ I said. ‘You want to grab a whisky?’
‘Fine then,’ I said. I picked up my case and turned on my heel.
‘Don’t piss about Tony. You’ve missed the last train and, anyway, I don’t want you blabbing, do I?’ He flicked his cigarette into the gravel, grinding it with his heel. ‘Let’s get that scotch then.’
I got a table where he’d have to pass me to get to the toilets or the door. I plonked my stuff where I could feel it against my shins and gave him a twenty. He came back with two doubles, no offer of change. He slumped into his stool, raised his glass and said, ‘New life and all that,’ downing most of it.
‘Is that what this is? Cleaning the floor at a railway station?’
‘Is there something wrong with hard work?’
I sipped my scotch. It nipped at my throat. ‘No, but you were management and-’
‘You must’ve been on a good whack.’
‘Another?’ he said. I sighed and reached into my wallet, but he’d already gone off to the bar. He brought back two more whiskies and slid mine across the table top. ‘Just cos I clean toilets doesn’t mean I can’t stand my round.’
I ran a finger around the rim of my glass. ‘Are you happy, Tony?’ When I didn’t answer, he said: ‘Cos you don’t look it.’
‘Are you?’ I snapped.
When he didn’t answer, I said: ‘They found your clothes by the river and everyone thought-’
‘I know what everyone must’ve thought. And I did think about doing it as it happens. When Jean died I-’ He ran his hand through his fringe. ‘Look, I’d got everything I needed, but there was no one to share it with. I had to make a fresh start. I didn’t top myself but I would’ve done if I’d tried to go on. I had to make a go of it elsewhere.’
‘You could’ve told us,’ I said, hating myself for sounding whiny.
‘Nah,’ was all he replied.
I nodded. I’d read the newspapers, listened to the police briefings. We all had. For the first few weeks Colin had been a missing person, classed as vulnerable following the death from MS of his beloved Jean. When he wasn’t found the rumours spread that twenty thousand in wages had gone missing from the office safe.
‘I know what was written, what was said about me. I kept up with the local papers online,’ he said.
‘People were worried about you.’
‘Worried? People said I’d done a runner. That I’d gone off with their money. Do you think I’d have done that?’
I let the scotch hit the back of my throat. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You weren’t like that.’ I hadn’t spoken up for him though.
‘Well, I’ve spoken to the police. They’re happy I’d nothing to do with that.’
‘But if the police know where you are?’
‘I’m not missing. I’ve no one to report me missing. I’ve no one left. This is my life now.’
‘But you’re still missing.’
‘I’m not. The police know where I am. I told them not to say anything. I can live where I want.’
I snatched at my scotch, draining the last of it.
‘Do you feel cheated, Tony?’
I shrugged. He folded his arms. ‘Would you rather I’d been washed up on a beach? Or that I’d started a new life in the Costa del Whatever with your month’s pay packet?’
‘See, I’m happy here. I wouldn’t have thought so once, but things change. I’ve got a flat the size of an eggbox that takes five minutes to chuck a duster around. I can eat fantastic food, get cheap theatre tickets, whatever, cos it’s all on my doorstep. When I’m not on shift I go to the British Museum, the British Library, the Tate, all of it free. I walk for miles at night over Millennium Bridge and Westminster Bridge and along the Embankment cos I can. I sketch sometimes or I just sit and stare and think I live in one of the most amazing cities in the world. And you know the best bit?’
I said nothing.
‘It’s all going on around me and no one notices me. That suits me just fine. London’s the loneliest or the best place in the world depending on your lookout. I’m one of life’s spectators.’ He paused, spun his glass on the table. ‘What do you do at night, Tony?’
I pushed my empty glass away. ‘Oh, it’s one, long, non-stop party for me, Col.’ He got out his phone while I went through to the gents’ toilets, not caring anymore if he stayed. I stood at the urinals, cooling my forehead against the white tiles. He knew what my nights were about. Since I’d had to get a place of my own I was seeing less and less of Kate and working more hours than ever. I didn’t get to wander past St Paul’s and stare at the Parthenon Marbles. I got home late and knackered and washed a microwaved bhuna down with lager on a tray in front of the TV. Colin came into the toilets. ‘Just checking. You OK, mate?’
I forced a smile. I had the management job, the Audi. I was supposed to be asking him if he was chipper. I went back through to the bar, set him up another scotch, took a beermat and scribbled my number on it.
YOUR SECRET’S SAFE. STAY HAPPY
I walked out into the night, sniffing the cold, sharp air. So, a toilet cleaner was giving me life lessons. My feet didn’t feel so sore anymore. I could get a room later. I decided I’d walk down past St Paul’s, lean on the bridge and watch the lights on the river.