Nick B phones. He is in Whitby. He is asking for my address. I have to scrabble around in many notebooks trying to find it – I thought I lived in Whitley Bay, but I had better check. He says not to worry, there’s a bus back to South Croydon leaving in ten minutes. “I’ve packed some sandwiches and some shampers.” He spreads the words out slowly – ‘sand-wich-es’, ‘sham-pers’ – and this makes me happy because it is just as he would do.
Ingrid W, dressed in white linen, arrives at last, saying, with a spread of her palm, “Will you keep them entertained?” She indicates a handful of strangers who have appeared at the door behind her. And, before I can say anything, she is gone again. The strangers shuffle into the flat. They are possibly Japanese tourists; they wear buttoned up beige raincoats, have little black cameras strapped round their necks. They bow and have comedic teeth.
The lift is old and graffitied and struggles its way down through the stories with great clanking sounds and, by the time the doors open, IW is far across the dark landscape that resembles the brutalist plazas of Russell Square. I call out her name, but my throat is muffled. Lights start to come on in the flats all over the square and shadowy figures at the windows shout down to me. “Quiet! We’re trying to sleep!”
The lift never returns, so I walk up the stairs, sadly turning left, turning left, and rising up into the building again. My feet are bare. When I reach the flat the door is wide open and the Japanese are throwing a noisy, unruly party. I struggle to get through the rooms – of which there are many – and everywhere there are strange, shambling people; zombies and estate agents in ill-fitting suits and foreign exchange students. They have made a real mess of the place; bottles and glasses and general rubbish litter the floor and tables. In the kitchen there is a band making an horrendous, amplified noise. Someone has exchanged all the lightbulbs for red ones, giving what was earlier a calm and welcoming home, a threatening and nightmarish feel. Again, my voice is trapped in my throat and, as I struggle to push the uninvited out of the door, I can make only muffled and pathetic sounds. It is a thankless and seemingly pointless task because as I remove one gatecrasher I discover another and another in endless rooms that I never knew existed. The band plays on. The drums are insanely frenetic and the guitars have a staccato effect on them that surely will make me vomit quite soon. The singer barks.
I stand in the hallway, head against the glass, and cry. I wait for her return.
A text from Jah Wobble: Sorry to wake you so early. I’m the park keeper today. Keep the red flag flying. I go to Crystal Palace Park and there he is, sweeping the vast iron stage by the lake. Jah Wobble wears an old tube driver’s jacket – grey serge with three buttons and thin lapels – it is ripped at the elbows and the holes have been overlocked. He wears a white shirt and black tie beneath this. A 1950s Zodiac Consul, engine running, is parked at the edge of the lake and he puts down the broom and says for me to get in. His voice echoes beneath the rusted auditorium. I get in the passenger side and he joins me at the wheel. We’re supposed to wait for two others – part-time postal workers, Jah Wobble says. Suddenly, he guns the engine and we’re careering off over the grass. In the wing mirror I see two people running behind us. “Too late!” he says, and they fade quickly into the distance.
Now we are in Cornwall. It is flooded. Huge jets of water rise up from the submerged road. He parks the car on a runway strip and we walk toward a small plane that waits there. Wobble climbs into the pilot’s seat and places a peaked cap onto his head. I sit next to him. The two (part-time) postal workers can be seen running toward the aircraft. I see them through the turning blade. But, again, they never make it.
The plane rises dramatically into the sky; the countryside falls away and the sea spreads beneath us.
“Raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath its folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.”
Our voices are thin within the engine’s roar.