When the East London Line finally reopened in full, I was outside the city being shot. As flabby faced professional toff Boris Johnson waved his Union Jack from the window of the first train and tried to take responsibility for something instigated years before he was elected to office, I was running through a forest with shells ricocheting off trees to either side. The calm silence of the woods and the glorious heat that became trapped in the green bowl were punctuated by the cack of gas cylinders pumping, metal bolts being thrust back and the occasional yelps of pain.
Lying in the unkempt grass in front of the ruined house, I knew I was surrounded. I just couldn’t see them. Too late, they’d seen me. A dozen pelts smacked into my exposed back and shoulders; I couldn’t even tell what direction they come from. All
I knew was the stinging sheer that pinged across my body.
‘Yargh’ I may well have shouted.
‘He’s hit! That’s it buddy,’ the guy in the orange t-shirt and the purple tinted plastic visor bounced across the undergrowth, ‘you’re out.’
I trudged away from the game zone, dragging my paint gun in my wake, the gentle rattle of unfired balls against the plastic magazine rolling in rhythm to my step. In the safe area, behind the protective netting, I unpeeled my bright yellow hood and special forces wannabe face mask. Sweat from the thirty degrees heat plastered my hair in dank streaks across my scalp. I sat down on the overturned log and let the adrenaline surge drain through my bloodstream and out my sweat pores. I chuckled, for from my memory came the bark of a thousand war film sergeants ‘Smoke ‘em, if you’ve got ‘em.’
‘Hey, Dave!’ someone said and I turned. At that moment, the juke box in my head hit emotionally epic and I felt like it was the flashpoint in the credits of a classic movie.
From a bias angle it seemed like the moment when the matinee idol turns to the camera and the right hand corner of his lips curl and goosebumps shiver through the audience. In that single moment, I felt like a hero.
‘The problem is, I’m not you,’ someone recently, helpfully, pointed out. ‘I can’t walk into a room and have the confidence to just stand up in front of people and talk.’
Ssh, I thought, it’s just a bluff. Don’t tell anyone, though.
I’m not a hero. Don’t be ridiculous. I may be arrogant and occasionally my mind plays tricks on me and I become mildly self-delusional, but nothing more.
Although, is it even arrogance when you’re just pretending?
And in the evening after we’d pretended to die a dozen times we raced around the mini roundabout outside the club; building dizziness and pushing aching legs, pulling the spiral tighter and tighter until the late night lights segued into the blackness and then became clear again as a single orange laso encasing us for protection as we giggled blissfully like children.
‘Show me your bruises, then,’ the girl with cropped tar black hair and an accent that oozed southern France said a couple days afterwards. I raised my left shirt sleeve to show the only one I could in public. It was the colour of rotten apples and snaked from my armpit to my elbow along the soft undercurrent of bicep. ‘Cool.’
Except it wasn’t really. It was just, well, life. Bruised skin. It’d heal. But then I do so like to be thought of as cool, especially in a detached Bogart-Marlowe couldn’t give a damn way, so I let it stand and tried to ignore the little accusing voice.
A few days later I fell out of the Big Chill Bar in the old Truman brewery. Quite what I was doing in a place either there or in any of its neighbours, places so metropolitanly groovy that they serve ironic cans of Red Stripe rather than real ale and all the other customers are ‘aving it big style under the neon glow of diluted pupils until they caught your eye and went all laconic and wiltingly cool, I can’t remember. I righted my stance and my jacket and decided to try and grab the last East London train of the night home. Shoreditch to Brockley in less than fifteen minutes. I glanced at my watch and felt the ground sway. Marvellous.
Except I couldn’t find the station.
‘So, you’re sure you know where we’re going?’ asked Rob a few hours earlier as we passed Miquita Oliver on the corner outside the Golden Heart and I’d internally wondered if she was now just paid to lurk around Shoreditch at all hours.
‘Sure,’ I’d winked back, implying that I slinked out there all the time when really I’d checked googlemaps before leaving. But at the end of the night I wandered around the top end of Brick Lane opposite the old Tea Factory and the corners where on sunny afternoons fucked up guys and flowered skirted girls perch with roll ups between their lips and tattered old suitcases open to display random wares and I could not find the damn entrance. I could see the railway line’s swanky new single piece metal bridge sparkling over my head, but the door proved to be more tricky.
When I popped out onto Commercial Street, and looped past the Commercial Tavern for the umpteenth time I wanted to strangle the unbidden memories of nursing a pint of Black Sheep in an idle early evening’s sunshine and watching Tracey Emin sauntering on by and – hey – hadn’t I once read an arrogant article by Jeanette Winterspoon about how she her little house somewhere nearby? I wanted them to shut up. They weren’t contributing anything, they weren’t helping and then the train rumbled its yawning way above my head and was gone without me.
I sulked through Spitalfields and snagged a bus down to London Bridge; heading home the old fashioned way. As the bus bent and twisted its was across the Thames I decided that a thorough exploration of the line was needed, given that the a-z to in my head had suddenly become out of date.
Over the next few days, I concocted a plan for the first free sunny day: I would ride the train all the way to Dalston and walk home, editing my mental map as I went. In the end, I bumped into the new line earlier than planned. On a late night dash from Baker Street home I jumped off the Jubilee Line at Canada Water. I soberly stood with my hands in my pockets, rocking on my heels and looked up the line to Rotherhithe , visible as it had always been just up the tunnel – as though when they’d dug the soft southern chalk out to cut the Jubilee Millennium extension the compass had been faulty and a new station had been erected to cover over the cock up. It had been two and a half years since the line had closed and probably much longer since I lurked on that platform, but suddenly I felt the snuffle of nostalgia sneak up upon me. When I boarded one of the swankily cooled orange and blued up trains home I felt the novelty of it not grinding to a halt at New Cross Gate, but it was still the old East London line. I wanted to experience the twenty-first century version – and, as it turned out – both re-evaluate my relationship with the East End and possibly deliver the final kicks to bring a bloody silence to the final ghosts that could be found there.
I hit shuffle on the memory jukebox and turned to shrug at the imaginary audience, because whilst logically I know I don’t live in a story sometimes it’s more fun to pretend.