The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

I was walking along Cleveland Street the other day in a cold drizzle when I suddenly came across an amazing collage on the pavement which just about summed up the human condition to perfection. It comprised a pool of vomit, an empty beer can, some dog shit and a sprinkling of confetti.

– 3 January 1987

My favourite English writer finally got his name in lights in 1989 with the hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell that was largely based on his long-running column for the Spectator magazine. That column was also published in three collections – Low Life (1986), More Low Life (1989) and Reach for the Ground (1996) – though some notable omissions mean these are not the collected pieces.

In these books the style changes over time in one important respect. The earliest is perhaps the most uneven. Presumably written in more of a hurry, it still contains more high points of utter quotability than the other two. By the last book, his various ailments have slowed him down so much that he inevitably has more time on his hands, as incident gives way to reflection.

No matter the year, though, Bernard (1932-97) still gives the reader a reassuring feeling like the one he himself had about Turkish baths. You can walk about and have a chat and all sorts of oddballs loom up in the steam. The main subjects remain the same. Booze, women, horse-racing, hospitals, the peculiarities of the rich and famous, getting away from it all, and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, with his comic foil the gruff Jewish landlord, Norman Balon. I overpaid him with a penny for his thoughts.

In more ways than one, as Bernard reminds the reader, drink gets you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise be. I have even woken up in a drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe. That was fairly frightening. Trying to open a drawer from the inside. It’s quite tricky. 

His real boozing set in during the Sixties. There is a vignette of the comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68) falling in a heap on the floor of a London cab, after a ten-hour session with Bernard, but still reaching up and handing him his card. Phone me if you get into trouble. I think you may have a drinking problem. Nevertheless it is doubtful Bernard was ever in the eating-is-cheating camp, as is evident from this one-liner.

People who drink wine without food smell like drains.

Drink was always the other woman, he eventually grasped. What I know about women could be put inside the head of an ant. This of course was not true. With seriously dangerous women you can hear them thinking in the dark. He had reached the point of low to zero expectations – All I expect is that they wake me up when the waiter brings the bill – but it was there he could make a vintage brew from emotional and literal car crashes.

I remember once being given a severance kiss in favour of a property dealer who turned out to be impotent. There was also a woman… who… jumped into her car and drove straight into a wall, blinded no doubt by crocodile tears.

I just heard a terrific bang and smash followed by screams, and ran out into the street to find that someone had driven a car right into the Draper’s Arms. It was sitting there oozing smoke in the saloon bar. Luckily the occupants were… simply shocked. Whether they were shocked by the crash or shocked by the fact that it wasn’t quite opening time is debatable.

On life’s episodes of jumping into bed, un-followed, though he was married four times, Bernard focuses on the effects of pre-coital (or non-coital) tobacco consumption.

Sadly I’ve never had a footman to summon and have these people thrown out before they smoke all my cigarettes. I resign myself to the situation, take a Valium and then fall asleep and burn the bedspread… I now have a fire extinguisher by my bed but I never really know whether to aim it at my privates, the lady or the bedspread.

On hospital patients, his conviction did not quite match the old theatrical metaphor that the characters may change but the play remains the same. For him the characters alas did not vary either.

my three companions are dead ringers for any and all the other trios I’ve ever served time with in hospitals. It’s a bit like being in rep.

Sadly the patients never change. Are they provided by some sort of agency? Is anyone worth talking to ever hospitalised?

… it is the patients who get up my nose the most: readers of The Sun, football fans, moaners and men who would take an oath on Reader’s Digest. I sometimes wonder if it is only the ugly and mindless who get sick.

To be fair he does not care for medical students either, with one or two “who couldn’t diagnose a decapitation” but all exuding halitosis.

Norman is a kind but sometimes embarrassing hospital visitor, paying calls as he does to every bed in the ward and then announcing in a loud voice gloomy prognoses on the doomed inmates. ‘He hasn’t got long,’ is his usual verdict. He should wear a black cap on his hospital rounds.

In honour of his hero Admiral Nelson, Jeff recounts the highest point of his hospital career in the style of a naval battle in the days of sail but, in the excitement and fog of war, he also lobs in land-based allusions to Shakespeare, horse-racing and the English Civil War. The incident took place at dawn, while he was trying to sneak a cup of tea, outside the surveillance of a West Indian kitchen tyrant.

This mere sloop, as redundant as a dinghy at Trafalgar, was suddenly about to be engaged by the… Santissima Trinidad, the biggest warship afloat. Vainly I swung the wheel hard to port but her first shot knocked the cup out of my hand and sent boiling water everywhere… ‘Dis my kitchen. Get the f*ck out.’ Now she was wrestling the kettle away from my grasp and… the last thing I could afford was a Rastafarian boarding party. I backed away and dropped anchor by the fridge… There are… moments of inspiration that have changed the course of history and as my right hand suddenly felt the comforting lump of a half pound of butter I knew she was but a Rupert to my Cromwell. I had offered my kingdom for a horse and got Shergar. The butter hit her on the left shoulder with such force she spun round and dropped the kettle… I could hear her in the distance… ‘… Mister Bernard, he f*cking mad. Try to kill me. He cut my arm wid butter…’ It was a momentous victory.

Regarding those historical figures he did know personally, in little more than half a page elsewhere he touches lightly on Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger, George Best, Michael Parkinson and the writer of Chariots of Fire, one Colin Welland, whom he labels Smelly Welland. But the Stone is the most vivid.

I went on the piss with Mick Jagger and… he suddenly burst into tears. Solicitous as a spider to a fly, I enquired as to the cause of the dreadful stream of tears and mucus ruining my lapels. ‘I can’t take it,’ he howled… ‘The success. The money and all those birds.’ At the time, I happened to be short of both… and suggested a transfer of both cash and crumpet into my safekeeping. He soon stopped crying and left without paying. My turn to cry.

Laurie Lee, however, proved even more bizarre and miserly.

Last year I sat next to him and he shovelled four lamb cutlets into his jacket pocket without even bothering to wrap them up in a napkin. I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’ He said, ‘I haven’t. They’re for me. I shall heat them up again tonight for my supper.’ I should have thought that the royalties from such works as Cider With Rosie would bring in enough to pay for food instead of having to wash old chops covered with fluff and bits of tobacco from a jacket pocket.

As for getting away from it all, Samuel Johnson is enlisted to frame the context of it all.

that daft utterance about London and not getting tired of it (a man, like him, who has an opinion on everything can be a bore).

Sitting beneath the palms… I can hear the fizz of frying prawns, the dying hiss of a lobster and the rattle of a cocktail shaker and, with luck, the scream of a German tourist treading on a sea urchin.

The only foreigners he liked and had real sympathy for were the Irish. With the understandable exception of Terry Wogan.

I expect strange things from Americans but this nut introduced himself and then said, ‘You write for the Psychic News, don’t you?’ I told him I didn’t and held out very little hope for much entertainment after death which is why I was holding on to the bar with such tenacity.

For the reader, his best holiday is his most nightmarish, in Egypt, where he battles diarrhoea cramps in forty degrees, with no hat. But, like Indiana Jones, our hero escapes in the nick of time.

I found a lavatory with as much wonder as Carter experienced in 1922 on opening that tomb.

Jeff is nothing if not a philosopher, whose imagination is not of the fantasy variety but that of the man who can grasp connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Note how a glass of vodka in the sun causes him to reflect on playing the Good Samaritan.

the ice melts away as quickly as a man you’ve helped.

Nonetheless, where such a man may disappear to can still surprise him from time to time.

A couple of Sundays ago I was watching Songs of Praise, which was coming from Maidstone prison of all places, when to my amazement I spotted a man in the congregation of the chapel who owes me £50. He was standing there and had the gall to be singing Abide With Me.

Another example of his philosophical talent is shown after he has a bag nicked in the pub and he extrapolates on theft.

Most blessings are heavily disguised… I vaguely remember having left a chunk of cod fillet in the carrier bag with the sweater and by this time the thief will have come to acknowledge that it is better to give than to receive.

His powers of sociological observation are also considerable. Though, with the amount of geography thrown in, it is only fair to give credit to both his social and spatial awareness.

Today’s spiv is a smoothie more than anything. He is to be found in advertising, television, Fleet Street and, by the score, in the House of Commons… Most Soho spivs work at producing television commercials.

… journalists are simply shit-stirrers paid to drink on expenses. 

A lot of people in Islington have been hinting at potential talent for at least fifty years. Most of them end up as rip-off antique dealers

Name me a gossip who has been snatched away too soon. You can’t. (…) There’s a nasty grin that plays around their wet lips when nothing whatsoever funny or amusing is being said… they understand the human condition, which is something the village idiot can’t comprehend… The village idiot is the man who mentally jogs through life.

The key to Bernard’s black comedy is that it hinges on the sinister side of life, his philosophical consideration that something bad has either previously happened, could still happen or might just as easily have happened. The more surreal the better.

His life in the Coach and Horses included the day he was stared at and then chatted up by a beautiful black woman who turned out to be the tax inspector who was on his case. The pub also landed him famously in court for operating an illegal gambling book for his friends on the premises.

My lawyer made a really excellent speech to the magistrate but my friends in the gallery who came to lend me support, and in some cases write about it all, laughed too much and the beak didn’t like the levity.

By 1990, the phone revolution was underway and his biggest remaining problem in the Coach was gaining attention at the counter.

A man came into the pub the other day carrying one of those awful mobile telephones. I asked him if I could use it and he kindly obliged and asked me what number I wanted. I gave him the number of the pub. Norman was standing no more than six feet away and when he answered the call he barked, ‘Coach and Horses! Hallo!’ I said, ‘Is there any chance of being served a bloody drink in this ghastly pub?’ My language was a little stronger than that…

At that point Norman just called him a bastard and gave him a vodka. Bernard goes on to link this moment to a racing reminiscence.

… I remember once being served by an Irishman at a Derby lunch in the Dorchester when I spotted Sally, the Begum Aga Khan, a couple of tables away. I asked the man to deliver… a note without a word in her ear. I had written on it, ‘Although I am only a humble Irish waiter, I think I am in love with you.’

Though the play conveyed with pathos the happiness of lunchtime sessions in the Coach and Horses with many old friends by then dead, Bernard’s columns also captured the sadness of the pub life, as in the last days of the year, of any year, as Christmas goes on too long, like the patron who should just go home.

The crowd in the pub is a human left-over soup of a kind… A cheque is cashed, a round is bought and Chorus enters stage right declaiming, ‘You should have been in here last night.’

In his introduction to the first volume, John Osborne remarks on Bernard’s eye for physical detail. This is perhaps most evident in two passages from the late Eighties in which Bernard looks back on good times, out in the country, where, despite the failed attempts to settle down with various wives and despite the various spats with vicars and rural gentry, he was evidently happiest, at least when he was on his own.

(The first spell was ruined when he unwisely invited two rowdy house guests to join him in the sticks.)

There was a cold winter that I did enjoy though… [X] lent me a cottage in Suffolk and I got a job from the neighbouring farmer. For two months I worked at hedging and ditching and it was tremendously satisfying… After every twenty yards or so I made a little bonfire with what I had cut and sat down and had some tea from the thermos. The country was crystal clear. Cloudless pale-blue skies and the cold brought everything into the sharpest of focuses so that a frozen blade of grass was as a needle. Blackbirds and squirrels followed my progress along the edges of the frozen meadows, and then just as I was beginning to feel like St. Francis of Assisi the spell was broken. (…) No more log fires, bonfires and blackbirds eating the crusts of my sandwiches under the frozen blue silence of that sky. I could have killed them but they managed that themselves in their own good time. I miss them a lot.

– 5 November 1988

But the thing I thought mostly about during this sleepless night of remembrance was walking my dog… at dusk on autumn and winter evenings. She was a very pale Labrador – the pallor native to East Anglia … I had a very good gun… and when the sun began to dip below the trees of the wood we would walk along through the mist that gathered above and beside the river. She would go along ahead of me, stopping from time to look back and see if I was still following, and I would be looking out and listening for pheasants, wood pigeons and rabbits. I was poaching but… the farmer didn’t spend money on breeding game. It was just there, like the trees that had been there for hundreds of years. An all-too-rare treat we had was to see the barn owl gliding down along the river. He was so powerful that one that one languid flap of his great wings would carry him about a hundred yards. Freewheeling majesty. Then, when the sun had really sunk, we walked home through the wet grass, the smell of gunpowder lingering, cold and hungry towards the log fire.

– 21 January 1989

As for an epilogue, I choose the passage most apt for these Brexit times, which Jeff would have seen as the predictable evolution of the grossness of this age.

The English man-in-the-street… is largely envious, vindictive and punitive. (…) He knows little about himself, would not even understand the recent Budget but, by jingo, he knows what is best for other people. It is a mercy that there aren’t more referendums in this country. They would be hanging children.




Journey to the End of the Bed

Journey to the End of the Bed



The flat was like a menagerie. Quirke looked up from Viz and saw the furniture couldn’t seat everyone present. He was squashed in at the kitchen end of the couch, up against a conversation driven by Terry, a harmless goblin leaning forward from an armchair between the couch and the kitchen doorway. Terry had come on a scooter. It was one of his periodic visits to W10 to collect his post. His scuffed white helmet lay at his feet. Up against Quirke sat Dec, blond in a brown tweed jacket. At Dec’s feet lay a matching brown timber box that contained his bagpipes.

Dec and Terry were talking about taxis. In fact, Terry was raving about them and he’d been doing this for an hour since Dec had mentioned the subject. Terry’s brother drove a black cab and it seemed Terry’s ambition in life was to drive one too. The rigorous requirements for a black cab licence might have meant an interesting ten minutes but the monologue on The Knowledge was unbroken and unending, apart a brief blip when Quirke sniggered at something in Roger Mellie. Dec thought he was laughing at Terry, while Terry was unsure but he wasn’t going to be put off that easily.


Behind the armchair in which Terry sat, the steamy doorway and the hissing and bubbling indicated Simon was still monitoring the dinner in a tiny kitchen with red floor tiles. Simon had been the only one in the flat when Quirke got there after dark that evening, the first of February. On hearing the buzzer pressed, out on the street, he answered through the intercom. Then he opened the front door by a switch on the wall and appeared in the doorway of the ground floor flat. Quirke transferred his holdall to his left shoulder with a final effort.

The bare concrete floor of the common hall was scattered with junk mail and a phone book or two. I’m sorry about the mess. Most of it belongs to upstairs. Simon then led him through a carpeted tunnel, past a couple of bedroom doors, a bathroom door and a broom closet. Down a step, the living room had a battered couch flanked by a pair of armchairs. They were arranged in a rough line by the inner wall, on the left. A velvety brown, extendable armchair, shaped a bit like a dentist’s chair, sat by a window on the right. Outside the window, in the dark, lay a small, enclosed patch of concrete. That’s the patio.

Simon paused his dinner preparations in order to make the new arrival a mug of coffee. Quirke dropped the bag and sat down. He expected to feel a bit bewildered for a few days. The television and VCR sat at torso height between the window and the first doorway. A dusty stereo sat underneath it, on the lower shelf of the stand. Simon asked him what his plans were. At twenty-four, Quirke intended never having no money again. He also intended taking no more shit. Those were his twin resolutions.

“I’ll see if I can get an office job and avoid the sites,” he ventured.
“The sites are a trap,” was all Simon observed.

One by one, the other people came. In the crowded room, farther up the couch, sat Chris, barefoot in a tracksuit, reading the Independent. An ex-policeman, he was working as a crane driver in Watford. Just before he’d left for London, he’d turned to Quirke in a bar, on his last day at home, a hot day in June. The calendar suggested it was only months before.

“Will you travel with me?”
He was by no means the first to ask. Maybe people were trying to tell him something.
“I’ll be on the boat tonight. Will you come?”
“I have money, if you need it, if that’s all that’s stopping you.”
“Ah no, I don’t want to.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re sure? What’s keeping you here?”
“Sorry, Chris, I just don’t want to go over there.”

He wasn’t ready then but it was only a matter of time before a change of speed and a change of scene. Instead, the next day he’d merely headed home, down the country, on a packed bus with the hot sun shining in the windows. Wrecked and flat broke, as usual. Nothing changed. Sweating, unshaven, he thought he must have looked like a junkie, if anyone noticed.

A young woman with green eyes and dark red hair sat on the remaining armchair, in a long cream skirt and a soft green turtle neck. She was talking to an eleven-year-old girl who stood in front of her. The child was one of the offspring of Irish parents who lived in the flat upstairs. It seemed this kid often came down, away from a family of headcases, to talk to this girl, whom she looked up to and who listened to her and gave her some of her time.

The child had approached Quirke earlier, when the room was not quite so crowded, to say she’d heard about him coming and that he was the one who would be staying for a week, to find his feet. She said Kim had told her that. The timescale was the first economy with the truth. In his letter he’d said he wanted to stay there for a week, alright, but Quirke had only ninety quid in his pocket so he wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.

A voluptuous thoroughbred, Kim hadn’t yet acknowledged Quirke except for a bare hello and a fleeting smile when she got home from the office. There were only two bedrooms in the flat. She and Simon had one and Chris had the other. Quirke’s eyes fell upon the chair like a dentist’s by the window. So this was truly his best option when it came to London addresses? Then Simon produced the first big English dinner of meat pie, cauliflower and potatoes. He knew how to work the wonky grill.

As Quirke reclined in his sleeping bag on the dental chair in the early hours, the only light came in a glare from a streetlight through the window of the living room. All it really needed was the faint sound of jazz but nearby Dec was lying on the floor, reciting one of his poems. He was proud of the line “Vivaldi plays on hired contraption” and that stuck in Quirke’s head by virtue of the contrast with the records playing upstairs.

The room was hot because the tenants were in the habit of leaving the radiators on all night. This only added to the claustrophobia. Dec had a stately squat in Greenwich in which he left an electric heater on twenty-four hours a day but it was a bit lonely so that was how they both happened to be crashing in the living room. The glare and the heat helped keep them awake. The window was open almost a foot. Quirke wasn’t too keen on sleep either because bad old dreams were coming back. Dec kept talking and Quirke was trying to keep his head together between anxiety and a peculiar sense of exhilaration. He had never been to London before. He had no money, no work and just a chair to sleep on.

Help was sure to come in the form of Richard, whom he was due to meet at the weekend. The girl whose existence had crept up on him like a tropical disease was in bed with another man at the same address but he had this good-humoured headcase right beside him, reciting verses. Vivaldi plays on hired contraption. Instead of Vivaldi, the music they had to listen to consisted of Doris Day records. The child’s parents were having a party upstairs and shouting voices could be heard erupting intermittently, over Doris. If it meant he really had to listen, then Quirke waited for Move Over Darling.

He slept on and off and had the dreams. You don’t want me, says she. I don’t want you, she means. He slept alone on the chair in the flat during the day too and had the same helpless hallucination.

Friday night they all went out, to Club Dog in the George Robey in Finsbury Park. A black and white film of the Eastern Front ran backwards silently on a screen in a corner. Two chaps were meanwhile moving around through the crowd with woks upturned on their heads, each drumming on the other’s wok helmet, each with a pair of chopsticks, incessantly chopping, chopping. Feeling the surge of a silent rage, Quirke glanced at her and thought she only made him despise himself, resurrecting his weakness, his impotence. Yet he intended to make it there, if he could keep at least a part of his head together.

With Richard, Quirke was stuck in Bethnal Green Tube station on Sunday morning. Some old geezer was leaning out of another carriage, roaring permutations of the same pair of points. The first was a general sort of query.

“What the fark is wrung eah?”
How was anybody on the train expected to know? Quirke and all the rest could nonetheless agree with his other repeated remark.
“Get this farking tube moving!!”

It was hot; the tube was packed, for some reason; people were standing, holding the bars; but at least the doors were open. Finally, when he was standing on the platform, the geezer roared at the train again.

“Fark this, I’m farking off!!”
It was only then that a younger, deeper voice rolled out from another carriage.
“Do us oll a fayvah!”

Richard’s energy was at least in part the result of a worse trauma than Quirke’s, though similar in nature to it. This white-haired Irish boy had been blindsided by a sudden, deathly revelation of unhappiness and hadn’t even had the time for anxiety, as he’d moved his stuff out in a daze the next day. The rest of it was natural roguery. The night before, he’d brought Quirke to meet his friend Kevin in the St. James Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue.


The bar was a ring in the middle of a timber floor. A tall young man with long hair and a long coat walked up to the newcomer.

“I hear you like poetry.”
That had evidently been Richard’s effort at establishing some sort of context. Quirke shook his hand.
“Eh, yeah, I do.”

Just to be polite. Quirke liked some poetry but usually the chopped-up prose, like most “Poems on the Underground”, would make him curse under his breath. There was more poetry to be found in the Socialist Worker. Nonetheless it was safe to say that he and Kevin hit it off immediately and on Sunday night the three of them went to Covent Garden, to the Punch and Judy, where Quirke looked around him. This city wasn’t like being in any particular country, with the mix of cultures and the lingering looks from the Nubian queens and the lip-licking blondes. Quirke thought he could blossom there, maybe. It would be like life in the afterlife.

Soon, though, he was afraid. Afraid of no exit. Afraid of being heard calling out a name in his sleep. In the daytime he slept for an hour on the dental chair in an empty flat and the siege lifted. Next he helped Dec bring his gear to Heathrow. With Dec was a curvy and quite attractive Irish girl called Liz. Quirke wasn’t sure what her presence meant. Dec had come back to the flat to borrow luggage. When he left the living room to struggle to zip up cases in a bedroom, she sat up and put her hands on her knees and told Quirke she was really into guys who wore glasses.

Quirke pushed his own up on his nose. This was a bit intense – he’d only just got there – but he made no intelligible comment. Then the three of them went to the airport. Dec got on a plane home to Ireland and the other two went to an airport bar. Quirke asked for her phone number after she bought him lunch and a few pints. Liz gave Quirke a work number. She wrote it down for him. She said she presumed he wouldn’t lose it.

A beautiful but overweight young blonde across the bar looked to be under pressure. She wasn’t listening to the conversation at her table. Dressed in black, her body was on the no-brain side of the erotic-aesthetic continuum. In other words, the gorgeous, sophisticated head and the flabby, asset-rich figure were incongruous. The others there looked like stubbly musicians or media types but they might just as well have been film caterers.

Back in the flat, the heavily scented bathroom had a noisy ventilator. Windowless, the enclosed space intensified the claustrophobia. The most vital things to have in London seemed to be a Tube pass and a phone card. There was a faint smell of burning rubber down the Tube and sometimes he liked it, at least when it and the distant echoes smacked of anticipation and a chance for observation, but it was more important to have money for the caff. Always conscious of trying to get used to everything, Quirke didn’t even know what he was doing with the girl’s number. Simon mentioned that she already had a boyfriend but then he just shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

Richard brought him to the Brahms and Liszt wine bar cavern in Covent Garden. He couldn’t see anything in the crowd under the brick arches but he just stood there patiently, sipping red plonk, listening to the band and watching his friend and Kevin get in among the girls on the dance floor. Richard had promised to go to a party later.

In a crowded Battersea kitchen, Richard introduced him to Rachel, who sat on a high stool by the worktop. The look was vaguely Molly Ringwald, vaguely Mimi Rogers and she was immediately friendly. He was soon talking easily with her, at least until she discreetly beckoned to his friend to come back, whereupon Quirke didn’t want to be a gooseberry and slipped out of the kitchen.

The stereo was playing low. He put on Funny How Love Is and decided he felt as forsaken as a leading man in the Bible, namely Job. Playing the song over and over, he was the only one up and he had a nervous hangover, sitting in an armchair and looking up at the grey window and a Battersea morning. He was sad but again somehow felt inspired by revelation that there was no more mystery or hope. Back in W10, the divinity was sleeping in another room.

Some site beckoned to Quirke inevitably when no office job worth even ten grand looked on the cards. Up in the Portobello Road market to look for work boots, he couldn’t find any. The market stank of rotting fruit and vegetables in the evenings as old people and pigeons searched through the rubbish, when men and birds mingled as equals. He was in the grip of a cold by then. His cheap shoes burned the soles of his feet. He was running out of excuses. He couldn’t control his moods. He asked himself was it even a neurosis. Playing The Cure’s The Head on the Door on the old stereo, he, too, felt, like the last track, that he was sinking.

Through a feverish night he couldn’t think straight. He didn’t know what to think. He went down to Hammersmith and bought insoles. For a whole day at least, he felt he was having a nervous breakdown but the next he finished a story he called The Retrial, along the theme of the sleeping beauty.

Richard then got him a job with a rough Irish crew on a site near Mile End, to start Monday. That much was settled then. He’d been warned often enough at home to stay away from the Irish, that they were the worst, but he had to start somewhere. He found a pair of old boots in the broom closet, not knowing they would practically cut the feet off him.

His sinuses felt chronic. He just couldn’t shake his illness. Varieties of the common cold seemed to have grown more virulent. Then he let himself be trapped on the patio during a party in the flat. She admitted her unease, when he asked. She said she hadn’t meant to hurt him. He just told her to be herself. He told her to do what she wanted. The night air looked clear. He was out, so to speak. But at least she’d talked to him more like the way she used to. He then got drunk and started mumbling about politics, this time to a thoughtful, teetotal Glasgow Rangers fan who was the last person who’d have wanted to hear his thoughts on Irish freedom.

The worst thing about the first day of work was the old theme of people being strange. Quirke just wanted to be left alone to vegetate, down in the basement, pulling nails out of boards with a nail bar, which wasn’t exactly doing the business. The thought of each thirty-five quid was the main thing to get him through each day. Obviously, but it was a nice figure.

The competing IRA and SAS graffiti had to fight for space with inscriptions outlining the regional rivalries of Britain. Quirke was making a list in his head of ethnic occupations he’d already noticed in London: Irish (building sites, pubs); Asians (small shops); Italians (cafés); blacks (low-paid public service jobs).

He studied the magnificence of cranes. Tower cranes. He watched fist-thumped tables in the climax of card games in canteen huts. They broke a table two days into the week. It just couldn’t take any more punishment. As the week wore on, at break times Quirke sat resting his cut feet in a hut mostly populated by the English. He found them more interesting – less depressing – to listen to than the Irish. They didn’t ask each other if they’d ever played GAA in Drumcolloher, for instance.

Not long after midnight, on the dental chair, he was having a coughing fit when he was sure he could hear the rhythmic sound of a bed creaking in another room. Each breast must have felt the rhythm of the bed creaks, resurrecting his weakness until they’d had all they could take. Little miss loves it. Let me eat cake. It was friction for a wound to weep. He was too wound up to sleep. Then the coughing ceased. Influenced by the bad thoughts of fatigue and work in the morning, he became possessed by an idea of mindless cruelty, of a child who disregarded the consequences of her actions as of nature. Well, when he thought the creaking had stopped, he coughed a few more times before finally falling asleep.

Just when the morning fry-up had begun to be the highlight of his working day, though, Quirke got the boot. Nine in all were let go at the end of the week but at least he got almost one hundred and ninety quid for his trouble. It reminded him a bit of a good old grant day. To change the cheque, he had to go up to the Archway Tavern at the western end of the Holloway Road, where a hand took four quid out of it, appearing and disappearing through a small hatch. Whatever happens he wasn’t going back to Ireland, running back into the arms of the dole. The day was mild and, wanting to have more of a look around, he took his time and walked all the way down the Holloway Road with his money in his pockets. With the fingers of his right hand he rubbed some compact pound coins together, while the left felt the small wad of notes in the other pocket.

This was the way Quirke remembered being born. He was on the edge of a cliff or some other precarious height before he was cast down by some sudden, irresistible, invisible force. He zoomed downward but just before he hit the ground the flight stopped suddenly and he landed and survived. The strain of the pain, the pain of the strain on his neck was always there, in the dream. At other times he dreamt his head was stuck to his shoulder. Thirty-six hours it lasted, originally. To that day he’d found it hard to get a hat to fit him.

Kim didn’t go to the office on Monday. After dropping his laundry in for a service wash at Ladbroke Grove, Quirke wandered up Portobello Road and bought a Triffids tape, Calenture.

In the daytime, Portobello smelled of hippie veggie and exotic foods, where English was like a minority language behind the likes of Polish and Spanish. So many beautiful women went to and fro. When he got back to the flat, she sat on the edge of an armchair and told him he was freaking her out.

“You’re the most selfish person I know. Not selfish in small, everyday things, but in an emotional sense.”

She had a point. His own happiness was evidently more important to him than hers – he was in her place – but the eventual detachment that allows people to think of someone else’s welfare first, if necessary, also allows them to think of the right kind of person for that regard.

She asked him to stop using her. Who’d been using whom, he wondered. Why couldn’t she have just left me alone?


They watched Prick Up Your Ears on video in the afternoon, alone in the flat together, talking to what real purpose? If she saw a monster in him then he’d let her feel its power. He was freaking her out.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“You mean, what’s my goal?”
“Out of here, that’s my goal.”

She didn’t go to work the next day either. He had to be a model prisoner. It was the agony in the box garden. They watched Scanners, with the bad psychics exploding the others’ heads. It was like what he’d been doing to her since he’d got there. He thought of making a joke about that but decided against it.


Simon said he’d try to get Quirke a job on one of the sites where the company he worked for, in a white collar, was one of the names on the billboards. The site in question was an office block called Beaufort House, on the site of the old P&O building beside Petticoat Lane. Quirke asked about the firm that owed Simon a favour and he said they were English, dry-liners, from Nottingham. Shoes would suffice indoors, it was good to hear, as he still picked scabs off his feet after the old boots.

On the first of March, Quirke took a tube to Liverpool Street to meet Simon for lunch and discuss it further. Quirke said he’d do it for a few weeks, to get on his feet. Raising his eyes as far as the end of the carriage on the tube back, he fixed upon a striking, dark young woman, dressed to match, standing at the other end. Then he noticed she was really stacked, in black. Then he saw she was Maria Whittaker. Then she got off.

His first celebrity had been spotted, the reigning queen of page three. Stardom seemed more tangible, more real around London, in the shadow of the stars. It waved itself under a person’s nose. He longed to thump his fist on the table at home and say, “I told you I could do it!” If visions of world destruction were characteristic of schizophrenia, then, in a world of fifty thousand warheads, he just assumed the conditions were there for mass psychosis. Quirke’s proposed solution was to pick a subculture and make it within that.

Mile End had been a dirty site. This one was merely dusty. More than that, it was surreal. The lifts caused chaos, breaking down or meeting trolley gridlock at the groaning doors on every floor. He didn’t know how anything got done but it was nice to be able to look out from a high floor and see the city without cars or people. The soundproof windows presented a silent skyline. The greyness made him think of the Sixties but he wished it was Paris or Rome.

He wondered was it always going to be a dawdle but of course the very next day was hard, with lots of deliveries. Quirke nearly did serious damage to an old chap when the weight of a wheel made a hole and he allowed a trolley of plasterboards to go over the side of a wooden ramp, down on the basement-like ground floor. It was his teenage colleague, Martin, who shouted a warning just in time but all trolleys tipped over, all floorboards broke.

Pushing another trolley of boards, Plug the ganger and his nephew Martin managed to detach the water pipe to the portable toilet cabins, thus flooding a large part of the same floor. Martin was only seventeen. The site was full of pretty boys but this lad had a snaky, zigzag scar down one side of his face. He told Quirke he’d got it when he “went under” a car at home in Dublin. The Geordies with the firm nicknamed Quirke “Shadwell” after Rob Brydon’s Welsh caricature on Naked Video. It was because he wore an old pair of glasses held together by masking tape, to save his good pair. The tape only made him look like another headcase.

Chris and Simon went out on Saturday night but, just to do something different, he didn’t join them. Neither did Kim. She wasn’t much of a drinker. Even in their short time together she’d let him go to the pub on his own more often than not. They sat watching TV and, clean and properly bespectacled, he drank a bottle of whiskey. Kim gave him a bottle of Southern Comfort she didn’t want. She looked at him after it and said she hadn’t thought he’d be able to drink it but he had, with enough of a mixer mixed in, admittedly. She watched him walk from the living room. She reluctantly acknowledged his composure, even though he’d become too skinny for her, for one thing. Plus he drank too much. But she was young and Irish too and she never told him to stop it.

Back on the job, skin irritation grew from rock wool, gypsum and general dust but at quarter to five he was thinking that when he looked out from a gathering in a hotel suite on such a high floor, then he’d have made it. Then Martin then started throwing things at him, just for a laugh, and they very nearly came to blows but in the event merely came to pushing. The kid didn’t understand how irritating it was to Quirke, that schoolboy rough stuff. It upset his mellow late afternoon. Maybe it was just fatigue that made him react so quickly but, anyway, he apologised the next day. He had to work here. At least Martin didn’t throw anything at him again. To pass the time in the afternoon the two of them then sneaked into the finished marble halls in the centre of the block and invented a new sport – racing the lifts up and down the floors.

A new girl then turned up in the flat, to make them five. Eileen knew Simon. She looked all right: slender with bright brown eyes. She started to sing along with Love Street on a Doors tape. She held the tune. Quirke liked that. His inner turbulence subsided a little. Many ideas came to him before going to sleep. He thought he had a novel in him, a green liquid circulating in genesis, as in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

In the meantime he roughly broke the corners off nine heavy, pink, fire-line boards and discovered that he and Martin had damaged a load of thin pipes covered in special paint by flinging them aside in a heap. They had been told to shift them out of the way and they had done this task while it noisily pissed down outside. The clang of the pipes had peppered the dull roar of the rain.

He skived off twice, another day, for six pints in total. He’d been working on a quiet floor with two Tonys when one of them mentioned St. Patrick’s Day and asked if he had any plans for the night. Then the other revealed that he wanted a pint right then, so the trio slipped away to the Archers. Of these two Tonys, the London one had a ponytail and was rather quiet, while the Leeds one said the only people he’d ever met who were like him were people from Leeds. He also wondered why he was bothering nailing up plaster boards when he had an order from Leeds for 4,000 E’s, if he wanted to fulfil it.

The second skive was with Plug, who claimed to have been the driver for some stick-up artists at home in north Dublin, where they had to share the proceeds with the IRA.

On Saturday afternoon, Quirke went up the Portobello Road to buy a Roy Orbison compilation, in honour of a man who’d recently died for joy at being back in fashion. There he ran into Eileen so they went for a few drinks. They sat in the Elgin in Ladbroke Grove with the sun in the windows above their heads and the fruit machines blinking, across the carpet. She confidentially claimed Simon had told Chris he was trying to get away from Kim. It was a twist but he decided not to swallow that one right away. It was inconceivable. He swallowed his drink instead.

In the night, though, thanks to some crossed wires about where people were meant to be meeting, it transpired that just he and Kim met in the Lonsdale, near the top of Portobello Road. There they had a couple of drinks before going down later to Shepherds Bush to catch up with the others. They sat at a table in the large porch beside the beer garden. Somehow they did love each other. Even though, as the Man said, It’s Over. When, for effect, he said he needed a good f*ck, Kim told him he needed to make love. Her suggestion was impractical, his suggestive, but the fact that his talk seemed to make her happy for the evening, which seemed to be her maximum, gave him a strange if fleeting feeling of gladness.

If Chris was going to persist with Eileen after that weekend, though, Quirke knew it would be yet another dangerous liaison for him to consider when manoeuvring to preserve and advance his position; to preserve, protect and defend his constitution. A third girl had turned up in the flat, to make them six and to crash either on the couch or the floor of the living room. Katie knew Kim. Katie’s temporary occupation consisted of hanging around the Shepherds Bush TV studios, waiting to be called in as an audience member for Kilroy Silk, where she could look solemn and interested in what other people were saying, at least until her face got too familiar in the crowd.

A new Dublin kid on site, Robbie, seemed a bit of a nutter. He lifted weights and did press-ups on the job. He was hyper. He and Martin soon crossed words up on a scaffolding tower and Quirke saw how natural such aggravation was to them. He wondered about what kind of selection of criminals had come over. They were like wild animals.

After spending enough time in the Archers, Quirke realized the EastEnders soap was real but he found he couldn’t cash one of his cheques there after an ingenious little scam had come to the attention of the staff. There was a loch of water in the cigarette machine. The usual transaction toll was a fiver from each cheque but, for any and every dud, there proved to be a more constant source of annoyance for the governor in the form of bits of ice frozen in the shape of fifty-pence pieces and dropped into the money slot, to melt at the bottom. He never caught anyone so he had to impose a sort of collective punishment.

Eileen then made a cuckoo move into Chris’s room so she got more threatening. Quirke wasn’t averse to firing a shot across her bows because she had a neck as long as her arm but she’d only have been a scapegoat. It was only the hassle of chess. He needed success quick, he felt, but then Chris turned around and informed Kim that a Scottish blonde was moving in, that he was moving her in. He gave Eileen no explanation except to serve notice in advance of a return to the living room. Simon put his hands to his face and observed that this was all getting out of hand.

Quirke retreated to a bench in the park. His life had consisted of college, dole and unreal jobs, as opposed to having a ‘real’ job. Once upon a time in Ireland it had been possible to have a ball if you got into a college – presuming you could lay your hands on a few quid for a drink – because with a degree you could walk into a job afterwards. That’s if you were lucky in that, economically, you got on one of those last choppers out of the Sixties. In the Eighties, in contrast, student types thought they might as well enjoy it too, prolong it as long as they could, because there were no jobs outside, unless one had pull or had earned a first. Thus college, dole and ‘unreal’ jobs kept the rest going before they left the country.

There were now candles in the bathroom to be lit for the sacred rites after Chris had dried his hair too vigorously with a towel and smashed the light fitting in the ceiling. While the sturdy ventilator was still booming, no one inside could hear a thing from the rest of the flat, no matter what was being said about him or her. While Quirke was newly clean and resting briefly in the dark on Chris’s bed, though, someone might have advised Kim not to talk so loudly when the living room window was open, across the patio. When she in turn went for a bath, he and Katie started bitching in return but later, with just the two of them there, his hostility melted away again and he tried to reach out, to help calm her evident distress. He didn’t like to see her in visible distress.

While Quirke was waiting for Chris to get out of the bath the next evening, Katie came back from a venture out of the flat and sheepishly confessed to Eileen that she’d got her card swallowed at an ATM, after Eileen had given it to her in a manner of lending her a few quid.

“How did you manage that?”
“I, eh, got the number mixed up, or something. I…”
“I told you to write it down.”
“You just kept pushing buttons, didn’t you?”

Three strikes and you were out. Buttons were being pushed all over. Kim got up off the couch without a word and squeezed into the kitchen to see how Simon was getting on with the steamy dinner. Katie then turned to Quirke, as if for support or sympathy, but got none.

“That wasn’t the brightest thing to do, now, was it?” he shrugged.
She turned back to the exasperated Eileen, who had her head and her hair in her hands.
“I’m sorry.”
“Jesus,” she sighed. “Do you know what a nuisance you’ve caused me, now that I have to go and get that back?”
“I’m sorry.”

Then Simon got even more stressed, collapsing at work but managing to gasp Kim’s name and work number to his colleagues. He had to have his appendix out. The day was unusually warm when Quirke walked up towards the Harrow Road to visit him in hospital. In his pyjamas, the patient described the post-op pain, of being unable to speak, while lying at night in a shady corridor, on a trolley, silent and helpless. He’d managed to lift his arm a little but it only fell back again. The heat of the day was like summer, deadening. Tell me about it, thought Quirke, as he looked out over the grounds via the nearest window. At least Simon was out of the flat for a few days.

The job was a dangerous joke at times. Martin opened up on him with a fire extinguisher in the plant room, up on the roof. He could have fried them both, apart from causing millions of pounds worth of damage. That was the verdict of the suits that later appeared up there to do an inspection. Two of the company’s tradesmen, while nodding and listening to the gravity of the incident, waved Quirke away, behind the backs of the suits, when he appeared again at the top of the ladder to see if they needed anything.

Getting dressed after a bath was still wonderful, though, even if there was even less illumination in the bathroom after Eileen had stayed so long in it that the hot candle wax that filled a glass ashtray on the upper of two glass shelves by the wall inside the bath caused a cracking, crashing, flaming cascade into the bath and she screamed through her Psycho moment.

Quirke made a call with a card, from a box across the street. Needing an outlet, he got invited to go out and meet Richard again, in the West End. Rachel was among the people with him. Rachel was likeable. Intelligent, educated North Americans tended to be more open-minded than their European peers because they had fewer intellectual prejudices. Plus her manners were impeccable.

The group they were in went off to a house in Kent where, in the course of the night, Quirke went through another bottle of whiskey. He was the last up, finishing it and listening to REM and The One I Love, when he joined in forcefully and repeatedly on the one-word chorus. Fi-err! With his eyes closed in concentration, he heard the door open in a rush. It was Richard, bursting in.

“Jesus Christ, I thought there was a fire! Why were you shouting “Fire”!?”

Quirke moved the CD onto the next track. Back at work, he just wanted to kill Robbie. He saw him as a real moron who didn’t know what he was dealing with. None of them did. It was when Robbie and Martin were together that they started to take the piss. Quirke tried to avoid them when possible. Then he hurt his back again. He was never going to lift plaster boards after this. The two kids reminded him of his teens. That’s what he didn’t like most.

In the Aldgate Nag’s Head at lunchtime, a black stripper focused her attention on Quirke, partly because he was sitting next to the stage, where the only space remained, but also because she’d wrongly hassled him over money and was only trying to make it up to him. “Come on love, we all have to make a living,” said the stripper, having forgotten that he’d given her a couple of pound coins at the other end of the bar. The suits congregated back there while the builders sat and stood up front. Though he thought the women had to be dead while they were up there, her remorse seemed genuine when she realised her mistake, but then again he saw more of her arse and vagina than her face. All the while the roars drowned out the music – the strippers having brought their own tapes –

“Shadwell! Shadwell!”

Late that afternoon the driver of a company van down from Nottingham arrived to take gear away and he looked shocked to find all their people drunk on site. It was like several simultaneous re-enactments of The Plank, with each man improvising with one or more lengths of aluminium, all wobbling like seesaws on their shoulders. Ends were rising, ends were falling, ends were swinging and crash banging on their way into the van but Quirke didn’t care. He was about to give his notice anyway. He wanted to get away from there.


One of Katie’s friends had a typewriter and he brought it to the flat in W10 to sell it to Quirke and Chris for fifty quid. It was the business. Then Quirke was brought off with Richard, Rachel and Eileen to the Wag Club in Chinatown. It was seven quid a head for an acid house type of racket. Bollocks, he duly noted, but Richard paid in. Eileen was pissed and she cut up Kim. She’ll not take me on because of her, Quirke thought, though she kept asking him if he found this or that woman there attractive. In the end, though, he gravitated to spending most of his time comfortably talking to Rachel, leaving the other two to converse as they saw fit. The four stayed up by the bar while some sort of orderly attempt at a rave went through the motions in the background. Only Kim noticed, after that night, that Quirke spoke of this American in a way she hadn’t heard him speak of any girl, over there. It was in a positive way she’d hoped to hear, to take the heat off her, but it was just a pity that Rachel already had a boyfriend and couldn’t solve her problem.

Up on the roof the day was wet and then the rain gave way as the breeze chilled his chin. He thought he did his best thinking at such a height. The vast city set him going. He imagined a voice-over as a camera swept across it. He had set his heart on quitting the job. A London skinhead complained that nobody was willing to do anything about the shit in the corner, behind the company hut.

In the canteen, Robbie and Martin spent over an hour talking about their past lives of Dublin crime. In a feud, Martin’s granny had got shot in the eye with a pellet gun while his grandfather “got” an axe over the head.

He left the job early on his last day, in case they stuck him to the ground with a Hilti nail gun. He’d either go home in a month or, then again, maybe temping might be easy. As they walked up to Sainsbury’s to do some shopping, Chris must have read his mind or else he just wanted to be rid of him. He asked him out of the blue was he going home. The answer was still a bit uncertain.

It was late when Quirke went out alone for a walk in the damp night. How could a child really be blamed? All it boiled down to in the end was lust and pride. How galling it was not to have had her. But if that was all that remained, it meant he was pulling out of something. He was only affected by her presence, no longer her absence. That’s how it had been, before the summer, but there was a huge difference at that age between understanding something and bringing it home to oneself.

The next time she pestered him with her point of view, he manoeuvred her into an argument about sadomasochism, where he could try to baffle her with references, but she staked out her ground on how and where and when.

“I decide.”
“How selfish you are,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I should know.”
“But nothing like that is black and white.”
“Like what?”
“As in what’s between us.”
“I know what you’re saying.”

She got up then and left the room for the sanctuary of her own, leaving Quirke more bewildered than ever. He sat in the little park, nearby. Earlier he’d been at a book stand up at the market and felt the warm tangibility of the book he was going to write. Then he’d moved on to the stall where the classical music played. There, Kim growled in his ear. She was with Simon. Tears weren’t a million miles away. He’d never wanted more to be on his own. He’d never wanted less to see them. To see her. He thought he had to go home. He felt he’d learnt some lesson there but later she just said she didn’t believe he’d go. Usually, when he was with her, he felt no hostility, only to brood later, on his own. She should have left me alone.

He and Simon went out for a long walk, late. Simon said he too didn’t think he should go home. Quirke crashed out a couple of times on the chair the next day before he and Eileen went out to Ladbroke Grove. He didn’t want her. That’s what he thought, he knew. Kim and Simon joined them there later that evening. If he’d met her in other circumstances, it might well have been different. The first two were twisted on the walk home because they’d had little to eat but he still resented Kim trying to encourage them to get together. It was not on, not least because of that. He wouldn’t let her cool the mark out.

Chris, in contrast, simply decided that he was going to America. Quirke guessed that they’d both be leaving this monstrous regiment of women. Saturday saw a lot consumed in the Lonsdale, around a table in the back lounge where Richard too was quietly egging him on to take on Eileen, but where again he found himself deep in conversation with Rachel, before it all got a bit hazy and the group found itself outdoors in Hammersmith.

Quirke got separated from the rest by tripping on and getting tangled in some wire in a building site into which he’d slipped, through a hole in the hoarding, for a leak, on the way to a party. By the time he extricated himself and returned to the street, there was no sign of the others and no one had noticed he was no longer with them, so he had to walk home. The sites were indeed a trap.

After some more time had elapsed and Eileen arrived back at the flat, on her own, Quirke had nothing left to lose and he decided he hadn’t walked home for nothing so he climbed into Chris’s otherwise empty bed beside her. The Scottish girl hadn’t moved in and she was lucky but Eileen took on a new dimension horizontal. Not for the first time, he noted the previously unimaginable healing power of touch, leading to an altered state of mind, for however long.

He was a bit sad that Chris was leaving. His moods were swinging. Looking at the cards in the slots, he felt almost faint in Ladbroke Grove job centre. A desire to flee from struggle seemed overpowering. He’d have loved just to f*ck off in the morning, if he’d had the money, but he had to keep his head.

With a spring in her step, Kim breezed down into the living room in the morning. He sat on the couch with a cup of tea and asked her why she was so happy. “I’ve a great sex life,” she volunteered, just in case he needed to know. “Good for you,” he answered and took a sip of the tea. His hatred of her idiocy, her cruelty, welled up in familiar silent rage and pain from which he wondered if he’d ever get a break. He hated that delicate phrase “sex life” too but still he didn’t fling the cup at the wall or at her head.

A proposed month’s work in a dole office then fell through. He’d put on a tie and all. He went home and crashed and felt a bit better when he woke. It was as if his will to work was broken. He was lacking in nourishment too but his college experience as regards hunger artistry was standing him in good stead. Then Eileen kindly cooked him a couple of meals. He’d had ugly premonitions of what it would feel like to be in London. These had come horribly true yet he told himself not to worry.

Quirke confidentially told Richard what had happened with Eileen, only to be told in turn that he’d already had a discrete encounter with her, before the Hammersmith trek. Whether or not it was an exaggeration or a wind-up, this latest episode of feeling the floor move beneath him was really all Quirke needed at that moment in time. Did the world know something he did not?

Before he went back down to Hammersmith to do some photocopying, the sight of Kim in the flat – the way she was lightly dressed, virtually exposed – made Quirke realize he was the coyote and she was the roadrunner. He just had to have her sometime. It was an existential thing. He then went down to Ryman’s on a sunny day but something went wrong with the photocopier and the people in the queue turned to each other in diffident, smiling uncertainty.

In front of Quirke stood a middle-aged transvestite, with plucked eyebrows and bright red lipstick. The guy behind Quirke then asked him what kind of script he had before adding quickly that he was in the film business. This man’s name was Stanley and in the course of their conversation he said he’d help him. He had tight black hair receding at the temples and looked like the type of chap who’d be involved in some expensive, minority sport. He didn’t seem gay.


Chris was gone. Quirke had given him the tape of Calenture and in turn the departed had waived a debt of twenty quid and left him the typewriter. Kim then announced that she and Simon were kicking everybody else out in two weeks. Out of there, that was his goal. Rooms were switched, walls were washed, in a flurry of spring cleaning that Quirke participated in by helping with some furniture lifting, fearing Kim’s wrath if he didn’t.

Katie moved out first, to a flat in Shepherds Bush. Then the typewriter ribbon gave out. It never rained but it poured. The sun went down in the park. It probably went down broader, down by Wormwood Scrubs. Very nice but he wanted to be home.
In the same weather, Richard promised money. Maybe, thought Quirke, he could relax, just a little. He read that Welsh pigs wouldn’t drink London water at an agricultural show and he flogged the typewriter in Notting Hill Gate. It cost him a lot of effort to lug it up there. He lifted the machine onto the shop counter. A grey t-shirt with greasy black hair plastered across his head moved forward to inspect it.

“So, wot have we eah?”
“Will you buy this typewriter off me?”

The grey t-shirt leant forward and peered into the works. There he spotted the loose ribbon and wiggled the problem with a suspicious forefinger.

“Wot’s this?”
Quirke then stated the obvious.
“Er, the ribbon’s given up.”
The t-shirt gestured with both hands at the machine, like he was pushing an open till closed.
“Well, fix it.”
“I can’t.”
“Why not? How do I know it’s your typewriter, then?”
“Er, I’m a writer. I’m not very technical.”
A second’s pause for thought evaluated the plausibility.
“Oh, OK then. How about fifty quid?”
Just like that.

He saw a Slattery’s bus ad on the Tube – only fifteen quid to get to Dublin – but just for a change he spent a Saturday night in Eric’s place, way out east in Dagenham. Eric was Kevin’s landlord and they lived in Gay Gardens. It was like an address in a sitcom. Quirke had asked if there was possibly any room there for him, so Kevin invited him out to test the water.

There was a guy called Mac staying there too, along with a canary called Harry. Mac had done a runner out of the North in 1971, when the Brits had piled in through his mother’s front door and he’d dived out the bathroom window, pulling his pants up as he jumped into a car waiting in the back lane to take him over the Border.

Mac and Quirke went to the pub, then to the off-licence. Mac’s fair comment on Irish ‘entertainment’ in places like the Archway Tavern was, “If they love it so much, why don’t they go back there?” With the hot sun forcing its way through the net curtains in the window and the whiskey and cans on the table, he provided images of the Southern border town of Dundalk (“El Paso”) in the early 1970s: people who’d never set foot on a farm used to walk around with bags of fertilizer over their backs, while the locals stayed indoors. It was like the Wild West back then but, by this time, 1989, he believed the IRA were only wasting their time.

Playing table football in the house with Eric reminded Quirke of a diversion from lonely bar extensions as a new student, when he’d had no one to talk to. Eric’s Irish impression consisted of saying, “Where’s me fucken shovel?” and it was decided that Quirke would move in, to the empty room at the back, off the kitchen.

Back in W10, the woman upstairs had stitches over one eye. It was evidence of a backhanded compliment from her other half, Quirke guessed. She wanted Quirke to get some things in the shop across the street. She gave him coffee and kept him talking upstairs. He told her he was moving out in a few days. She said she was glad people were moving out downstairs, that Simon and Kim were like a married couple down there and needed their space.

As the good weather survived, he might not have wanted to be in London any longer but he wasn’t moping or panicking. He had an attitude like that of Micawber. Things kept turning up. He had a job for Monday through Mac’s boss but there was some kind of war going on upstairs again. He was down to his last fiver. Then Kim said something that surprised him, after all that had happened.

“There’s a bed here now, if you want it.”
In ways, though, he was still sane.
“No, I think it’s for the best that I go.”
“Yeah, I think so too.”
“Anyway, I feel like a safecracker when trying to light that grill.”

On leaving he forgot to say thanks. He knew he’d go crazy altogether if he stayed there. What did he think about the reality of London, in the end of the day? He couldn’t starve to death or be executed. It was highly unlikely he’d be put in jail with the newsworthy Irish. These facts had to count for something.


The phone rang and it was Kim. He agreed to go and see her that same evening. He simply couldn’t refuse that voice at the other end of the line. Simon was away and they had a good time, relaxed and yet urgent, in the pub on the corner before returning to the laboratory conditions of the flat. Two of Simon’s brothers were crashing there in his absence so she brought Quirke into her room to continue the chat. She sat up on the bed, leaning on the pillows. She was in one of those moods again. She’d cause havoc wherever she went. He took the other end.

“Right now I feel like crawling over there and nibbling your ear,” she said.

It was a journey to the end of the bed. Either take your clothes off or keep your hands off, he thought. God we are stupid c*nts, us, in different ways. He not long twenty-five, she not yet twenty-two. Was there something the world knew that he did not? At his age, he wondered sometimes.

“But you can’t, you know that.”
He felt a little unwell but he had to tell her now.
“Have you any idea at all how much I wanted you, from the beginning?”
When it had been just the two of them, there might have been a double date with Adam and Eve.
“But darling, you never gave the slightest sign of it,” she answered.
“I thought you were… you know… you hadn’t…”
She sat up a bit.
“I had.”

To him she’d seemed a childlike angel, with a body to confuse all the numskulls down below, what with all the false alarms. She may have seemed a kid back then but all hadn’t been quite as it seemed. It never was. That had only been a spell that lasted a month, before travels on her part intervened for the first time.

When she came back the first time, she soon said the thrill was gone but the dust between his teeth didn’t infest his emotions, at first. She’d told him back then that he was up in the air, like a man tied to balloons in an art shop print they both saw, on one of those Dublin afternoons where there was always a bus or a train to get, but he didn’t understand what she meant. Now, in the room, she was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke up again.

“But wouldn’t it be a mistake for us to make love now?”

He thought of three things at that instant: the knot of bitterness and the pair of righteous brothers outside the door. The bitterness could have been overcome but, like Wilhelm Reich, he at least understood the crippling effect of a lack of privacy on human relationships. He muttered an answer instead of breaking something. He mumbled that it would.

One of the righteous brothers entered the bedroom to give her a little lecture while Quirke was in the bathroom. A blast of flashback occurred before he returned to her room. The heavy scent of the windowless bathroom with the noisy ventilator. The claustrophobia. Astral projection. The conversation died away, drained after that talking cure. He left the room soon after she said she was tired. There was a somewhat upbeat conclusion on her lips. We’re only beginning. I’m not letting you go.

In the course of falling asleep again on the extendable chair, it seemed to him the emotional coast was clear. No noise came from the flat upstairs. Presumably they still blared Doris Day, occasionally. Our lips shouldn’t touch, I like it too much.

The strange birds that strayed down from the heights had to be grabbed and thrown into sacks but knowing just when to make the lunge seemed the art. Ask the coyote. Waking up was like the relief after an operation. Then the patient leaves the hospital, thinks he’s healed, but the scars are tender for a long time and finally leave their mark.

The next day a girl friend of hers called to the flat and the three of them went down to the park, Wormwood Scrubs. The way Kim was dressed, in light pink shorts and matching tight top, with sandals with heels, helped explain the looks she got from the chaps sitting drinking outside the couple of bars on the road. Jaws were dropping away from the pints, at the tables, across the lively traffic. He saw them. He understood them. As for the feeling in the park, he felt like tearing up tufts of burnt grass instead of contributing to the conversation. By then it felt like a Mediterranean climate.

Another feeling was one of wondering if the emotional coast really was clear. The prison stood in the distance. What prisoner, had he known, would have swapped places with him at that moment? The common or garden psycho would have had no problem with that.


He went to meet Katie in the Station Tavern on Latimer Road, where a blues band was resident on Sundays. Kim came in later, a bit shaken after spending the night in the modern eternal triangle, stuck in a room that wasn’t her own, with a couple bonking. Quirke just had to laugh at this reaction and squeeze her arm.

Simon brought him down the road from the flat for some late ones. The pub landlord ejected two identical twins for refusing to drink spirits instead of pints, after closing time. Simon said they looked like undertakers. “Bound to be villains of some description,” answered Quirke. Simon kept saying things like, “Isn’t this great?” and in truth it was really enjoyable despite the moment of on-looking horror at the sickening state Jim McDonnell was in when knocked out in the final round of his televised fight against Azzuma Nelson.

They talked about Kim, and Quirke, sounding as sober as a judge, was quietly satisfied with what he saw as his honest, clear and just appraisal of their situation and what needed to be done. He was calm and even-handed, that was all. It was like looking at a sibling in the throes of a childhood illness, like measles, from which the observer had just emerged.



In the morning he woke up there on the dental chair. The living room was empty otherwise. Simon was banging on a locked door in the tunnel beyond and shouting Kim’s name. Then he could be heard muttering to himself before he left the flat, slamming the door to the street. Quirke sat up and the back of the electric chair sat up with him. He didn’t like the sound of this and he pulled on his jeans.

He dressed fully on hearing a crash of breaking glass. It had to have come from the street side. Simon had put a bottle through her window because she was in bed with another man, in revenge for Simon previously getting off with some girl, when Kim had been like a hen with an egg, trying to prevent that happening.

The other guy vamoosed in a trice, having perhaps first peered through the broken window to see if the coast was clear. Then she entered the living room, alone and scared. Next Simon came back into the flat and started screeching at her. Quirke even thought he was going to hit her. Well, he wouldn’t have let that happen. He stood between them, calming the situation, protecting her to the end. But he knew he’d be finally fully cured and healed. He’d just never have reacted with such overt passion. Simon stormed out again, this time for the day, and when the dust cleared Quirke asked her if she was all right. She said she thought so and he said OK and confessed that he didn’t want to hang around any longer.

The Irish Pound Note

The Irish Pound Note

November 1989

I was caught by the Tube inspectors at Victoria one Sunday evening on the way back from Croydon. Not for the first time, I gave a false point of embarkation. “Vauxhall,” I offered, adding that there had been no one there to give me a ticket. The senior inspector, the main man in black, then asked if the stairs went up or down at Vauxhall. I tried to be smart.

“There are no stairs at Vauxhall.”
“Wrong,” said the chief.

There were three of them in black. He told me to empty my pockets. Then he took whatever was there. It amounted to about four quid in coins. There were no notes and they duly escorted me from the station.

With more time to think I walked from there to Piccadilly. There was a pub – St. James Tavern – that I knew well on Shaftesbury Avenue and it was still a weekend night so I thought I’d surely find a familiar face. The bar was a ring in the middle of a timber floor and I circled it. I checked the gents’ toilet too but there was no one around.

It was still nowhere near closing time as I stood outside the pub again. I was in the middle of the bright lights in a very big city. No panic. My pockets were empty. No one I knew worked in central London so, even if I passed the night, walking around or something, I’d still be stuck there, unless I tried jumping the Tube stiles. Only central stations had those stiles back then.

My pockets were empty. I checked them again. In my old navy blue overcoat, the right inside pocket was torn. It would have been empty at any rate but the lining was intact. Then I put my hand down inside it, remembering. I’d left something there from my last trip home. Something that was of no use to me in London, that wasn’t worth extracting from the lining of an old coat. It was an Irish pound note.

Hmm. I straightened the green sheet and looked at the picture. Just maybe she was less Queen Maeve than Lady Luck. Despite a sign in the window of a nearby bureau de change that indicated the minimum transaction (£2.50), I went up to the Arab behind the glass.

“Can you change this for me?”

He looked at the crumpled note and pointed to the sign in the window. I nodded.

“I know but the Tube inspectors took my money and all I want is sixty pence, just so I can get through the barriers.”

I held up a thumb in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. He said nothing but gave me 60 p for the green Irish púnt, which was worth, on average, almost 87 p in 1989. This meant I could get a minimum fare ticket and get down into the Tube. I met with no further trouble on my long way back to Dagenham. The Tube got quieter and emptier and there was no one at the other end. The note was withdrawn from circulation in June 1990.




Living in London but in Dublin for a weekend for a quiz show…

13th November, Monday

There were plenty of f*ck-ups in the programme preparations but in the end of the day I pulled off a clean sweep of the show. The unexpected stoppage I caused by giving two answers to one question must have helped. With flights having been cancelled due to fog, J. wanted to keep going so we hit Bad Bob’s and Leeson Street again. In a wine bar maybe I fell in love with a blonde called Maureen. She’s from Leitrim and she teaches English to Spaniards. She’s cynical and witty but I got the better of her on Eurovision trivia. She gave up on Paris. Why?


20th November, Monday

I started as a chain boy on J’s site near Tower Hill. It’s all right. It’s better than labouring. I can cope with heights.

21st November, Tuesday

It was in a wine bar called Suesy Street, at the end of the night of the quiz, that J. and I ran into Maureen, who was sitting on her own at the counter. Her friend was in the process of getting off with a guy, nearby. Soon J. told her that there was something strange about her.

“Maybe it’s because I don’t simper.”

I was hooked. Description: fairly tall; slim but solid; hair clasped up none too carefully; a fine-looking woman without being stunning; an earthy laugh. In the short time I spent with her, maybe two hours, she impressed me more than any girl I’d met before.

“Come on boys, walk me home.”

She gave us a cup of tea. I asked if I could see her again, at Christmas.

22nd November, Wednesday

This could prove to be the best job I’ve been on. I can stand the cold, taking measurements. I don’t like using a sledgehammer but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seems more manly than being a donkey.

25th November, Saturday

Up on the steel girders of the seventh floor I sang Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. As somebody wrote on a girder – erectors get you high. There is a rush of adrenaline all right. I went to Harlesden to collect a typewriter. It was too cold to get mugged.

26th November, Sunday

The sun these mornings is dazzling as you feel the cold steel under your arse.

29th November, Wednesday

The docklands: sandy brick in the morning sun and frost, yellowy-brown like a painting. It turned out I was glad to have gone to work. Breakfast sorted me out. Am I getting more used to the cold? The warm office is a sanctuary.

30th November, Thursday

I got paid. It feels calming to have money again. Some of the lads watched a man and woman bonking in an office across the street.

The psychology of steel: fear keeps you careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor this evening, partly to keep in practice and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brings on stiffness and that needs to be avoided. On the steel always keep two limbs firmly fixed. It’s pointless looking down. Your world must only be the few feet of space in your immediate vicinity. I tie my glasses around my head. I don’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’ll fall off. After a spell up on the steel and the resultant buzz, the ground can feel unreal. I get flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London. The strange red buses.

1st December, Friday

I was thinking a lot about Maureen. I was freezing. On a foggy evening Tower Bridge and its lights remind me of a Whistler painting.

3rd December, Sunday

“If you f*ck this one up I’ll never speak to you again,” J. said (re Maureen).

4th December, Monday

After work I called the number Maureen gave me and was told she’d been killed two weeks ago when she was knocked down in Killiney. A hit and run. The rest of the night I was waiting to wake up from this unbelievable dream.

5th December, Tuesday

Life is never dull, is it? I collected the rest of the script notes from R. Two silent Japanese girls were making breakfast in the kitchen in Harlesden. They served tea without a word. When I got home I put on Vesti la Giubba and then I cried. It was only the beginning. There is no future with Maureen, because she’s dead. The conversation on the phone with the girl who told me was like something out of a film.

“Could I speak to Maureen please?”
“Am, who is this?’
“My name is John.”
“Am, are you a friend of hers?”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Maureen had an accident two weeks ago. She’s dead.”

There I have been, feeling death close at hand every day up on the steel and this unbelievable turn of events happens. I really don’t know how I feel. Kind of numb with the shock. Angel it doesn’t matter who took your life that night. You’re gone but your face will haunt me. It makes everything else look trivial doesn’t it?

I used to think these things don’t happen to me. After all, I was twice hit by cars and walked away both times. Now, it just seems that the way something unforeseen and bizarre often gets between me and women has taken a seriously unfunny turn.

I realize I’m missing the agony of her close friends and relatives. This circumstance is truly bizarre. A lot of the time I can only think in terms of black humour. You win some, you lose some. Passing strangers in the night. Life is never dull, is it? This kind of thing makes everything seem pointless, worthless. Maybe there’s a tarot card for it. An evil eye watching over those around me. Make a grave for the unknown lover. Just think of it, she was already dead when I wrote about her in earlier pages. You in truth were the unknown lover, the Other, maybe you were, to a man who doesn’t want a whole sex at his feet, who never wanted that, but if you can be taken away, just like that?

When I heard over the phone I instinctively felt I knew it would happen, like some dream, like I once wrote: lucky to have achieved creative fulfilment and a preparation for death at such an early age, I just missed out on a partner and economic viability. It’s as if my written moans over the years have now come into their own, that I was right all along, as if I understood all along. It’s just beyond belief, it’s mind-boggling that all I should have had of her were those few hours. That she had only a few days to live. It must have been a tearful, very emotional occasion, her funeral. I was told she was never conscious again so she didn’t feel any pain. Here I sit upstairs, writing, drinking, listening to music and crying from time to time. Maybe it’s things like this that make a man of a man. A queer twist of fate. My eyes are stinging from the tears.

6th December, Wednesday

I haven’t cried like that since I was a child.

14th December, Thursday

I got a doctor’s cert around the corner from the flat on North Pole Road. He told me I had the flu. Then he started talking about the IRA (“Why don’t they hang them?”).

Have I yet described the way Maureen used to throw her head back between her shoulders when she was laughing? Or how at first she was stiffening her lips trying not to laugh (her raised eyebrows – like ‘Are you speaking to moi?’). Weren’t the first impressions brilliant? By the end of the night I had her attention in the palm of my hand. J. can always vouch for that. He described it as a brilliant performance when we left her place, saying it had never been done to him before, being blown out of the water like that. She was the spark.

She was twenty-three.

London, November 1989…

London, November 1989…

In November 1989 I started as a chain boy, or engineer’s assistant, on Richard’s site near Tower Hill. A Nineties documentary on the 1980s building boom in the City of London would reveal that the tallest of the three blocks in Minster Court had become known to the suits as Dracula’s Castle. At the time of the broadcast, under the Major regime, twenty per cent of the office space was unoccupied and the block overlooking the Thames had already undergone restoration following a serious fire. On TV, the empty halls were like The Shining.


Photo source:

There on my first day, I saw the pools of water on the ground with cables lying in them like creepers in a swamp. I saw the generators and the clumps of rusting steel rods. I heard the rasping of angle grinders and the constant banging of the ‘guns’ tightening nuts on steel columns. I saw the sparks flying and landing in the water and looked up at the tower cranes, soon swaying ominously on windy days. It was all right. It was better than labouring. The requirements were a head for a heights and an ability to read technical drawings. I could do both, with practice.

A good policy for newcomers anywhere: keep your mouth shut until you find out what the story is. There one could learn a lot from the graffiti in the kazes. This was what someone wrote about the deckers from Derby.

£175 per week. Six days. All the shit. You must be f*cking joking.

All the shit” encompassed everything existential on the site. Then there was the scrawled inventory of the Irish concreting firm.

200 men, 10 shovels, 2 dumpers, 1 brain cell.

The morning papers said telephone numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were out on the streets. Even Dubcek had reappeared on the scene. The sun in the mornings was dazzling, bouncing off the river, as I held the measuring staff for the engineers with their theodolites, down below, and felt the cold steel under my arse. I could stand the cold. I didn’t like using a sledgehammer on stray columns but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seemed more manly than being a donkey. Up on the steel girders of a seventh floor, I sang Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. This too was a place near the river. As somebody wrote in chalk on a stairwell, “Erectors get you high”, and there was a rush of adrenaline for sure.

The warm engineering hut was a sanctuary of instruction, first thing each morning. Two hours later all the men lined up in the cold and dark under the block nearest the river to wonder would those ahead in the breakfast queue ever get served and move the line on a bit. These figures had faces of stone and bodies wrapped in heavy clothing. Inside the huge prefab the light was a bit warmer and when their trays were full they found tables and sat down without a word. They ate with an animal concentration. The hunger-artistry of a student getting through a day on, say, a toasted cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps was less impressive if he or she didn’t have to get out of bed until three, in comparison.

When the scraping of cutlery on the plates began, so did the canteen conversations about confrontations, near falls, mistakes and final warnings. There were plenty of sources of amusement, like “Barnsley” getting the hem of a leg of his overalls caught on a hook at the end of a chain from a tower crane, which lifted him six feet into the air before, it was said, dropping him on his helmeted head.

When I got paid it felt calming to have money again. In the dark by a fifth-floor railing, builders in a lengthening line of helmets like troops in a trench watched a man and woman having their affair in a fifth-floor office across the street. The numbers at the railing were greatly up on the third evening, when a surprising number of employees were slow to clock off the site, but by then the novelty of the desk was evidently wearing off on the woman who resisted the ongoing amorous advances of her secret lover. Maybe she just wanted to get out of the office and bring it to another level.

A month was left of the Eighties. The psychology of steel: fear kept me careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor of what became The Castle, partly to practise and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brought on stiffness and that had to be avoided. After a spell up on the steel and the resulting buzz, the ground could feel unreal. I got flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London, always conscious of trying to get used to everything. On foggy evenings, Tower Bridge and its lights reminded me of a Whistler Nocturne.


My confidence on the steel was growing. Up there I always kept two limbs firmly fixed. It was pointless looking down. The world had to be only the few feet of space in the immediate vicinity. I tied my glasses around my head. I didn’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’d fall off.

Soon, though, I felt like a victim of a flu epidemic. Everyone on that site developed lingering colds and that winter I naturally got run down from burning the candle at both ends. I knew I’d have to get a doctor’s cert on some dark, wet morning when I felt particularly bad. The doctor was a Philip Larkin look-alike. I think I have the flu. The man performed an examination in the quiet surgery. Then he started to write out the necessary dockets. I asked him a question.

Well, what have I got?
The doctor looked puzzled.
You’ve got the flu.”
He started to write again.
Ah, right.”

I almost added “Good” but, having completed the prescription, the doctor suddenly started talking about the IRA. He wanted to know one thing. Puzzlement again.

Why don’t they hang them?
Folding the sick cert in my hand, I shrugged.
Do you want more martyrs?

It was the Sunday before the last working week before Christmas. I tried to go back to work but then Ryder, the man in charge, caught me walking on top of eleventh floor steel without a harness, when I should at least have been scuttling along the bottom flange with my hands holding the top one. You’re not to do it any more, lad. Walking top flange. Christmas was near. I’d have a few quid in my pocket when I got home. I was glad to be working for an English firm. The hours were long but the money was decent. Ryder had proved sound without a shadow of a doubt. When one of the foremen claimed, He’s like a mad professor, Ryder said I was the mad professor, but if my money ever came late the top man would offer some himself. I hadn’t even a national insurance number so they paid me each week with a special cash packet sent down from Yorkshire. It was a bit different from having to go looking for wages in some pub in Kilburn or Archway and therein experience the full extent of Irish ethnic solidarity.

I still had a sinus headache on the right hand side of my face and head and it was killing me until the use of hot lemon brought some relief. I could only hope that lasted. Less than two weeks remained of the Eighties. Before the train departure for home, I was drinking with two young Scottish sailors in the bar in Euston Station. At first they claimed to be students in Portsmouth but, given the sociable chitchat, they looked at each other for a while before, over the second pint, warily admitting to being in the Navy. I looked at them both and turned aside as I bought them a drink. You’re all right, boys. You’re safe enough with me. I just want to get home.

I continued to drink on the train to Holyhead, taking an enthusiastic part in the singing that went on at the food and drink hatch in the buffet car. The Welsh lady on duty there cheered up immeasurably in the course of the journey and ended up giving out free sandwiches in return for the concert.

The number of people leaving the Irish state had mounted steadily from 1983 until the figure passed the one-hundred-thousand mark in 1989 but a minister in an Irish cabinet of west side Tories and papist Paisleys explained to the little people that we couldn’t all live on one small island.

On Christmas Eve, the shooting had stopped in Bucharest. On Christmas Day, the TV said the Ceaucescus had been executed. The grainy footage of the bodies was an exciting glimpse of history in the making. Given where the uprising had kicked off, Transylvania had just become world famous for another scary reason.

I went to work the first morning back in London in January and the site was all water. I stepped into a box called the man-rider and a tower crane lifted me, Jr and a couple of erectors over fourteen floors like a balloon trip until we were looking down on the skeletal frame of the angular roof of Dracula’s Castle, before it dropped us off to do a job on the roof frame. Sometimes, perhaps, I enjoyed working on that site. It was just the horrible first ten minutes of consciousness in the mornings that were the worst, before I managed to get out of bed and get dressed, having time only for a cup of tea at best, before getting to the Tube.

A pretentious fart worked part-time at Minster Court because his brother was the chief engineer. There was a problem with a column overlooking a street and he and Richard were about to take a sledgehammer to it. I stood back with some welders. The fart was first up. He missed the column completely and clipped the side of Richard’s hardhat.

In outrage, Richard grabbed the sledge off him and took a swing but managed to catch it in the hollow. It spun out of his hands and looped over the side of the building, fortunately landing just inside the hoarding. One of the welders gave me a nudge.

Are these two for real?
They’re available for weddings and parties.”

Always game for a laugh, every time they saw an opportunity, the welders would lift sheets of decking where rainwater had gathered on high floors and pour it over the side, down onto my compatriots – mostly angry men from Clare – laying concrete. It was only the eternal war between the bird men and the muck men. In the morning at about nine o’clock the sun in the south-east bounced off the river on the other side of Tower Bridge. As I walked from the site to the Tube in the dark, through the City of London, it was quiet, mild and still.

A really violent wind in early February caused Ryder to come into the hut around two o’clock that day, as planks and scaffolding poles and what not were raining down on sites all over London. You’re best off in pub, boys. More than forty people were killed by the wind.

The basement at Minster Court was an awful place. It was some hole. The mud men down there didn’t even know I was Irish, like them. To them I was just an intruder from the light. Most days I was doing something terrifying to most people, at first sight, but whenever I was down there, facing that black horizon, that firmament, with piss holes reeking in a deep, damp chill, it wasn’t physical courage I needed.

I got so tired that at times it made me very low. All my wages are gone, I noted, one Monday, blown on things like twenty-five quid per minicab home from the West End whenever I hadn’t the patience for a night bus, whenever it was too late for the Tube.

Just before starting at Minster Court, I was caught by the Tube inspectors at Victoria on a Sunday evening on the way back from a house in Croydon. Not for the first time, I gave a false point of embarkation. “Vauxhall,” I offered, adding that there had been no one there to give me a ticket. The senior inspector, the main man in black, then asked if the stairs went up or down at Vauxhall. I tried to be smart.

“There are no stairs at Vauxhall.”
“Wrong,” said the chief.

There were three of them in black. He told me to empty my pockets. Then he took whatever was there. It amounted to about four quid in coins. There were no notes and they duly escorted me from the station. No prosecution would ensue.

With more time to think I walked from there to Piccadilly. There was a pub I knew well on Shaftesbury Avenue and it was still a weekend night so I thought I’d surely find a familiar face. The bar in St. James’s Tavern was a ring in the middle of a timber floor and I circled it. I checked the gents’ toilet too but there was no one around.

It was still nowhere near closing time as I stood outside the pub again. I was in the middle of the bright lights in a very big city. No panic. My pockets were empty. No one I knew worked in central London so, even if I passed the night, walking around or something, I’d still be stuck there, unless I tried jumping the Tube stiles. Only London’s central stations had those stiles back then.

My pockets were empty. I checked them again. In my old navy blue overcoat, the right inside pocket was torn. It would have been empty at any rate but the lining was intact. Then I put my hand down inside it, remembering. I’d left something there from my last trip home. Something that was of no use to me in London, that wasn’t worth extracting from the lining of an old coat. It was an Irish pound note.

Hmm. I straightened the green sheet and looked at the picture. Just maybe she was less Queen Maeve than Lady Luck. Despite a sign in the window of a nearby bureau de change that indicated the minimum transaction (£2.50), I went up to the Arab behind the glass.

“Can you change this for me?”

He looked at the crumpled note and pointed to the sign in the window.

“I know but the Tube inspectors took my money and all I want is sixty pence, just so I can get through the barriers.”

I held a thumb in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. He said nothing but gave me 60p for the green Irish púnt, which was worth on average almost 87p in 1989. This meant I could get a minimum fare ticket and get down into the Tube. I met with no further trouble on my way back to Dagenham. The Tube got quieter and emptier and there was no one at the other end. The note was withdrawn from circulation in June 1990.

Now I was in London a year. On a bright afternoon in March I was hammering a dried concrete spill off a beam on a tenth floor and thinking, ‘What the f*ck am I doing here?’ In the sky, planes were descending for Heathrow in a continual stream. Two good nights of sleep had me feeling fine, physically. Inspired by the skyline, the mood lifted. It was only when tired that I felt at the end of my tether.

When next I got back to where I lived, after a night bus, at half past three, unhappiness returned and settled like a shroud. I was too dead to go to work in the morning. I sat barefoot on the couch, with the bars of an electric fire providing company. An endless television programme awaited the release of Mandela. The sound was down. The crowds waited in the heat. Everyone I knew seemed to have a lingering cold.

I knew I could learn enough to pass myself off as an engineer. I knew I could do it very quickly if I wanted, if I kept asking questions. But I didn’t want to. In the middle of the afternoon at work I’d usually be afflicted by an awful sleepiness. I’d be hoping that today Richard wouldn’t ask me, or tell me, rather, that we were going for a few drinks later. I knew I’d be wide awake when clocking out and the vicious circle would continue, even though it was an entertaining circle. By rights I should have slept for a week. That would have been sane.

A. wheeled a bike on site, to order, having stolen it from outside Fenchurch Street station, using tools from the site. Many bicycles were chained outside the station but a building site had all the relevant equipment. He simply requisitioned the clippers and pliers he needed. He was nineteen, living with his girlfriend, his “old woman” as he called her, in a Sarf London tower block. She was nineteen too, and pregnant. His dad’s word was gospel. His dad was doing well. They wanted foreigners out, especially dark ones.

I pay my taxes,” I said.
I know, you’re oroi’. I like the Irish.”
He asked about a name for the baby soon to arrive.
If it’s a boy, roi’, I wanna call ’im Chawlie, but if it’s a girl, she wants to call ’er Chanel. Is that oroi’?
I shrugged.
What do you think, yourself?
I mean, it sounds like a perfume. It is a perfume, innit?

Coco Chanel was a genius: the first woman to give women comfortable clothes and also the one who said that the people who laugh are always right. Spring tended to bring an ethereal sense of optimism. I remembered this as I gazed east, down on a City-scape resemblance to summer dusk. That afternoon, I was momentarily at peace. Otherwise I was tired, pissed off and wanted to go home.

A quick kip in a toilet cubicle at work lifted spirits again. I took a red marker from a pocket on waking up. After that interlude, other employees could be overheard speaking in admiration of a large cartoon on the white chipboard wall of the cubicle, based on an actual incident. It had Ryder throttling his counterpart among the deckers, with a caption underneath. Ryder’s New Work Incentive Scheme.

What an artist slept in me. Strong winds regularly disrupted work that spring. It meant I did f*ck all most of the time. By late March the job seemed to have lost its urgency. Men were just standing around in groups. Overlooking the entrance to the station, Casper told me he was having second thoughts about getting a divorce because his wife had got herself a shop. That was one good reason. Many of the Yorkshire men were ex-squaddies. Casper had twinkling eyes. He wondered why so many Paddies on building sites wore the jackets of old suits. The suit is the most democratic uniform. Even I had an old sports jacket.

The fourth successive night of poll-tax rioting saw looting in Hackney. Money was the only true revolutionary motive. Brixton rioted the next night. The government and press blamed the commies but their sects couldn’t have made up the numbers. I pulled a fast one at work by clocking in and then going back home to bed. I went back to Minster Court in the afternoon. Colour pictures of sizeable naked women now adorned the walls of the engineers’ hut. “From a cun’ book,” as A. said. Their breasts were like dead limbs.

I even slept a night on site, having walked from Piccadilly to Tower Hill when I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do at the end of a West End evening. It was nonetheless quite comfortable, lying for the night on a bench in the changing hut, with the blow heater going round the clock. Then, at half past seven in the morning, I took my site gear off its peg and put it on, with my boots, and went into the office. There we were told what to do before the eternity before breakfast.

Steve was a Cockney kid who’d done time for a cinema hold-up – he’d used his own car for the getaway – and then got a job there because one of the foremen was intimate with his mother. One day he turned to me.

My surname is Irish, innit?
I asked him if he wanted to see its Irish language version.
You speak the lingo, then?
I wrote the boy’s Gaelic name in a flourish on a column, with a piece of chalk. He seemed chuffed by this calligraphy.
Write somfing else.”
Biting the hand that fed me, I complied. Beir bua Óglaigh na hÉireann. He was mystified.
What the fark’s that mean, then?
Victory to the IRA.”

I walked away, leaving him furiously rubbing the chalk off the column with his sleeve. My mind settled down in the aftermath of deciding to go home. On a particularly quiet day I clocked in but stayed in a toilet cubicle until breakfast. I then skived around the office, sellotaping torn building plans back together and reading the papers. I went down to the sandwich bar at the Tower half an hour early in the middle of the day. A young black cat among the pigeons and tourists there was so brilliantly and alertly absorbed by the birds. I stood around, eating a hot dog. Later A. showed me fresh, unwrapped, uninstalled kaze cabins to kip in on the eleventh floor on Building 1.


Before the end, though, a gust of wind nearly blew me off an eleventh floor beam into a lift shaft. I went over nearly forty-five degrees before the gust ceased and I straightened up again. Just like that. In a state of low-level shock for the afternoon, I found nobody made me go up on the steel again for the rest of the day. It was an unwritten rule of the site. The next day the nerves were fine again but Ryder called me in. I was down the road on Friday. He knew I was going home anyway and explained that they had to get rid of some people as the steel part of the site was winding down.

You’re a good lad. We’ll give you a few quid and a good reference and you’ll always be able to get a job with us again.”

At six on the last day of March I went into the St. James Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue to meet a couple of college mates living in Dollis Hill. There we also met Richard, who was back with an ex (Eileen) for the hell of it. He plotted and schemed his social life like Richard III playing a part in Cheers. She’d turned up at Minster Court, as a secretary, but that was London. The two of them were talking about the big poll-tax march down by Trafalgar Square. They had only left it to get some food when they decided to have a few drinks in the usual spot first.

Richard was then told by somebody in the toilets that a riot had kicked off, after the march. Next thing the Old Bill came in and told the staff to close the bar because trouble was on its way and the Glass Blower pub had already been done over nearby. Down below, Piccadilly Circus was jammed. Police in riot gear were marching like river currents and the atmosphere was tense and noisy. We stood on a pile of rubble from some road works outside the pub, watching and waiting to see what would happen.

Richard and the girl went down closer and we got split from them when the cops charged a short distance up Shaftesbury Avenue. Half way up the street, into Soho, I turned back as far as St. James’s again. Richard crossed the Avenue and stood in front of the line of police, taking photographs. One copper then told him to move, as something else was about to happen at any moment.

I was by then on the dovetailing side street on the other side of the pub and saw a rock the size of my fist tracing an arc over onto the police line. It had been taken from the heap of rubble where we’d been standing moments earlier. The Bill charged again, the watchers ran up the other side street, but Richard stayed back, down on one knee, taking more pictures. The police cordoned off the side streets one by one and pursued rioters up Shaftesbury Avenue, where windows were being driven in and shops looted. I only hoped his photos came out good. In the event, they were stolen at the shop where he took them to be developed. Then they were sold on to a tabloid.