How it Ends
by Richard Cabut
It is May and Jack, who still has charm enough to blag the occasional free pint, takes a walk to the pub.
He traipses, loafs, lollops and occasionally stumbles from the hill, pausing to take in the City skyline, a small figure crushed by the infamous scale of towers, affirming the idea of a great distances and big facades — high hopes which belong to other people and which are too far away.
Best to go to the pub, then.
Down the hill, past the station, and along Evelina Road/Nunhead Lane. It’s a journey Jack takes every day. But today is different because when he gets to the pub Jack will die.
Someone or something will kill him.
Jack coughs. It’s not the hark-kark-kark of a man with a cold or flu — or even of a man who is simply clearing his throat because he has something to say — although in his own way Jack does have something to relate. It is a deep, resonant rumble from within lungs caked with the grime of countless roll-ups, and the gaseous residue of thousands of barrels of beer imbibed over the years. There follows a crackling sound as mucus dances with burst blood vessels at the centre of the man’s creaky bellows.
It’s fitting that Jack lives opposite the cemetery in Nunhead, south east London — an obscure area known mainly for the vast 51-acre necropolis established in the mid-1880s on what was then an idyllic hillside overlooking the capital. It was, as someone mentioned somewhere, a Victorian theatre of mortality — expensive at the front, while at the back the poor, in their cheap graves, would have to strain to hear the awakening trumpet blast.
Jack, though, hears nothing except, in his imagination, the bolts of the pub opening, welcoming him into a different sort of heaven. Somewhere a bloke can forget all the palaver — the ugliness, the terminal boredom, the everyday threats from people whom Jack owes money to. People who would hurt Jack if only they could find time to get around to it, so busy are they harming other unfortunates.
Perhaps, this will be the day?
But four or five pints of wife beater — for starters — will put them where they belong, to the back of Jack’s mind along with all the other bollocks.
The sky grows darker — as it always does in stories like this, in which themes of decay, anomie and violence, which inform the impending sense of doom, hang like black clouds.
Jack makes his way into the Lane, the main thoroughfare of this former hamlet to which day tripping 18th- and 19th-century Londoners made the short journey for some peace and quiet. Now, any remaining charm is reserved solely for those psychogeographers who marvel at and revel in the untrammelled urbanity, and unreconstructed grime that has grown unabated and untended through the industrial centuries. Inaccessible enough to have avoided gentrification Nunhead now lies forgotten, populated, as some journo would say, by a working class who, echoing the stasis of their environment, have somehow missed out on being updated to the underclass. It is one of the only places in London, for instance, where the pubs haven’t been transformed into bars with stripped floors, sofas, a wine list, and no smoking area – that would never happen. They remain boozers pure and simple, a fading testament to times past, and water passed in the form of piss up against the proverbial wall — and smelling much the same.
Jack lives in a place with, as they say, too much reality, and thus doesn’t even blink at the low-key local landmarks. That place that local kids call ‘the ghost house’, for instance, with its open doorway, damp torn wallpaper covering large holes, through which scuttle crab-like creatures, while the upstairs is dominated by a large iron bed somehow overgrown with green grass, like a post-modern artwork making a point about the indominatable spirit of nature and wildness; how the city will one day be reclaimed. Or, the kebab shops selling calories to good folk like Jack, with deep-fried dreams and scabrous fantasies trembling forever on the verge of coherence – much like the meat in a doner. Or, the other crazy, anomalous shops, with their flats above, graffiti-ed and lurching towards and away from one another, as though they have been frozen in the act of collapse — like blackened teeth in a mouth that has been repeatedly punched.
Jack’s cough reminds him that he needs, is dying for, a cigarette to alleviate an itch in both his nicotine-starved bloodstream and in his very soul, to provide relief from a hideous, nameless yearning that expresses itself in discomfort and confusion beyond mere physicality; an almost existentialist burnout which richer folk – them toffs on Telegraph Hill! – treat as they would a thirst, slaking it by drinking at the modern day spa that is restorative of most forms of ailment: shopping. There, salvation lies with the purchase of CDs, trainers and so on. Shopping provides respite from disassociation, disorder and the need to ask testing questions about self or society. It induces a state of calm that can last for, ooh, a couple of days, or so, before further purchases become necessary.
But there aren’t any shopping shops in Nunhead. Anyway, Jack doesn’t have the disposable cash for such dead gifts to the self. He has cigarettes, which he scrounges, steals, begs or, more simply, for which he sets aside a hefty portion of his measly dole money — or crime money, or security guard money… or, money which he has borrowed and will never pay back. Never…
… because down Nunhead Lane, Death – yes, Death! – walks at Jack’s heel, following him to a place where even angels can relax into the deterioration and float in the void: the pub. There, in the smoggy boozer, Jack muses on those he has passed on his journey to this sanctuary. The woman who, agitated by the thought that it’s always going to be like this, screams out during a domestic, “Go on then, kill me.” The road rager spitting, “Don’t mess with me, don’t mess with me — if I had my gat wi’me you’d be dead, man…” The thin woman in her slippers with the desperate look of someone who gets few opportunities for laughter. The girl walking, mouth open, twisted, silently smiling. The ordinary people who don’t like to make a fuss, don’t like to make any bother.
Into his subconscious, Jack has assimilated each and every one of them — fellow travellers along the margins of life, where melancholy and exuberance battle it out on a daily basis.
It’s a half-remembered dream, this journey, coming to an end now in the pub, where the end looms for Jack.
Taking a puff of his cig and a sip of his pint… — yes, of course, that’s what kills our hero (what else?) — … Jack clutches his chest in collapse as his heart revs up to the point where the giddy dribbles over into the riotous — the cells of the failing organ are a massive interconnecting doodle full of blobs, blurs and streaks of red with hidden centres of sick sensation amongst the tangle and tide of essence: Jack’s heart breaks, ebbs and — so, this is the human condition! — stops.
Jack walks and coughs no more after having journeyed to his demise in a place where he truly belongs — a place whose historical fabric he is interwoven with; where he is part of everything that has happened and everything that will.