No 161 - 2000
Gareth Sangster, freelance hack and sometime actor, was sitting in front of a computer screen in the office/spare bedroom of his Stoke Newington flat. He was staring just past the screen at the rear windows of the houses in the next street. He wasn’t watching anything in particular, just passing the time, seeking distraction from an unfinished review. A press release lay on his desk next to the keyboard. He’d read it a dozen times. He’d seen the film he was trying to write about only the night before in a Wardour Street basement. But something about it resisted his attempts to get it down.
He knew what it was. It was the fact that he’d seen the film a hundred times before, and read the press kit as often. The studios went to the trouble of giving them different titles, but they were all the same movie. The script got a minor rewrite and the actors ghosted through 90 minutes without breaking a sweat.
The phone rang, shattering his reverie. He picked it up and listened.
‘Where?’ he asked. ‘When?’
He hung up and went back to looking out of the window. He was wondering if his life was about to change. Or if Ash had fired the starting pistol for another wild goose chase. You never knew with Ash. He could be right, he could be wrong. Most of the time he was wrong.
Gareth looked at the screen. He knew he should shut the machine down and go out to meet Ash, but a phrase had entered his tidy mind and he decided to write it down before he forgot it. The phrase proved to be the key to unlocking the piece and his review wrote itself in less than ten minutes. He emailed the review to his editor, then selected ‘Shut Down’ and left the flat while the machine was still finishing up.
Most life-threatening situations that cannot be blamed on the random concurrence of unrelated events are reached as a direct result of people delving too deep into their own obsessions. When the alarm bells should no longer go ignored is when two people’s crazy desires are indulged at the same time and one of them shows all the signs of being quietly mad.
The alarm bells would have been ringing to wake the dead and Gareth should have heard them, but for some reason he had his head stuck up his arse. He always had had where Ash was concerned.
He picked up a black cab on Church Street and allowed its fluid acceleration to propel him back in his seat as the gates to Abney Park Cemetery flickered past the window. Whenever he passed the great Victorian boneyard, a still image of its fabled subterranean catacombs would light up like a silent movie behind his eyes.
Gareth’s obsession was with lost London films. He’d been in one, of course, which was how the bug bit him. When he was doing stage acting, appearing in fringe productions and living hand-to-mouth in a squat in South Street, Mayfair, he’d agreed to take a part in Harry Foxx’s Nine South Street. The conceit - that the film would feature a bunch of Mayfair squatters playing themselves - appealed to him. He liked the fact that the director wanted them to improvise around a basic thriller plot that was already in place. He also liked the director. It was Harry Foxx’s first film, but the tyro seemed confident beyond his experience.
Since its initial, extremely limited release, Nine South Street has never been screened. While other British independent films of the same era, such as Richard Stanley’s Hardware and Vadim Jean’s Leon the Pig Farmer, would enjoy an occasional afterlife at the Watermans or the Riverside, Nine South Street simply disappeared. Its only scheduled network TV broadcast was postponed due to a live football match going into extra time, and it was never reprogrammed, so Gareth Sangster’s only screen performance went unseen by most of the world, including its casting directors and independent producers.
Years later, when attempts were made to locate prints of the film for a revival at the NFT, none was unearthed. Even the negative had vanished. Ash, who had been Gareth’s co-star in Nine South Street, was less concerned by the disappearance of the film, since he’d had no acting ambitions in the first place, despite being a talented mimic. Ash was squatting in South Street at the same time as Gareth and they had formed a relationship, in spite of personal incompatibility, based on their shared interest in film. They went to movies together, making the most of the Lumière, the Electric, the Scala, while they were still in business. Mostly they saw British films from the 1960s and ’70s - Nicolas Roeg, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger. They caught Skolimowski’s rarely screened Deep End at the ICA, and The Shout at the Roxie. Gareth watched Malcolm McDowell and James Fox with the concentration of a counterfeiter staring at legal banknotes, then reproduced their tics and mannerisms in his fringe work.
‘It’s not the same as what you do,’ he explained to Ash. ‘It’s not impersonation, but reinterpretation.
‘Tell that to the judge,’ Ash replied in his best Bogart.
And, so, when Gareth and Ash encountered a tall, long-haired stranger prowling around the disused corridors of 9 South Street - a forbidding ex-office building they squatted with a dozen or so others - they were only too happy to buy his story about scouting for locations for a low-budget film. The three of them shared a bottle of Stolly that Harry fetched from the off-licence in Shepherd Market and the idea for the film was born.
For Gareth it was the perfect opportunity to fulfil his dreams. Ash was less clear about what he wanted out of life. South Street was his first base in London and he’d only been there a couple of months, having moved south from the West Midlands, where, he claimed, he had been the drummer in a band. He’d quit before they’d got a recording deal and then, as soon as they started to acquire a cult following, had been written out of their past, he said, airbrushed out of rock history, but Gareth soon learned to treat whatever Ash told him with caution. The Midlander drank heavily and did a lot of drugs. When they had first met, Gareth had been slightly in awe of him. Despite being a year or two younger, Ash was astonishingly dissolute. He maintained his various expensive habits by stealing books and CDs, which he sold on to secondhand dealers. He never paid for a meal in a restaurant, and so never visited the same establishment twice. Later, when it became clear that unreliability was part of Ash’s character, Gareth could never quite erase the power of those earliest memories.
Consequently, when Ash called to report a lead in the search for a lost London film, Gareth jumped.
The cab cut through the top end of Barnesbury and hit the Cally Road a few yards from the tube station that bore its name. As he paid the driver, Gareth spotted Ash peering up and down the street from just inside the station entrance.
‘Are they after you again?’ Gareth asked.
‘It’s no joke, man,’ Ash insisted. ‘Anyway, I don’t think I was followed. On this occasion.’
‘Ash, who the fuck would follow you?’
Ash looked pale and unwell, fish out of water. ‘You might,’ he said.
Gareth shook his head in exasperation.
‘Come on,’ Ash pressed him. ‘We haven’t got much time.’
They took the stairs and within moments were waiting on the westbound Piccadilly line. Gareth noticed, in the sickly gloom that prevailed on the tube platform, that Ash didn’t look so pale. He was also less tense than he seemed on the streets these days. Increasingly, it seemed, they hung out underground – travelling by tube to basement bars or preview theatres beneath Wardour Street. Getting from the tube to the venue was always something of a dash. It was one reason why Gareth didn’t see as much of Ash as he used to.
It had started as an interest in the city beneath the city, London under London, like the book by Trench and Hillman, one of the few books Ash had stolen and not off-loaded the next day. The interest had gradually eclipsed any others, apart from film: he combined the two by being selective about which cinemas he went to. Out went the Gate and the Phoenix, in came the Lumière, the Metro, the Renoir - cinemas where the auditoria were located below ground level.
Once on the train itself, Ash seemed to glow with vitality. He even started grinning at Gareth.
‘Stop that. I don’t like it,’ Gareth said. ‘Tell me where we’re going. Is this a wind-up?’
Ash leaned forward. ‘You know how sometimes late at night,’ he said, ‘you’re waiting on the tube platform and an empty train goes by without stopping? No lights on. It barely slows down, just passes through the station as if it weren’t there.’
Instead of continuing, Ash sat back and crossed one leg over the other. He was grinning again. Gareth looked away. The train was pulling into King’s Cross. He thought about getting off and leaving Ash to head off on his own, but then he remembered he felt the same impulse most times they saw each other and he never acted on it. When the doors closed and the train set off again, Ash crossed the carriage and sat next to Gareth. He had to shout to make himself heard over the din of the train’s progress through the tunnels.
‘Just as there are empty trains that go through “our” stations - your stations and my stations, everybody’s stations - without stopping, so there are other stations where these trains -’ he pointed at the carriage floor for emphasis - ‘go through without stopping. Empty stations.’
Gareth’s nose was close to Ash’s mouth, but for once he couldn’t smell alcohol on the younger man’s breath.
‘Empty stations?’ Gareth said, humouring him.
‘You mean disused? Like York Way, British Museum, Wood Lane?’
‘No. I mean empty. These stations have never been used. At least not by the likes of you and me. These stations are not on the network. They’re off the map.’
‘I suppose you’ve found a way to get out at one of these stations?’ Gareth could not keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
‘You just have to get on the right train. You have to get on one of the trains that stops at those stations. Some of them stop at empty stations as well as normal stations. Some only stop at the empty ones.’ Ash indicated the rush of light that signalled their arrival in the next station.
‘And you’ve done that, I suppose?’ Gareth snapped.
‘No, I haven’t. But I know a guy who has. He lives in the tunnels.’
‘Yeah, right - and here we are at Russell Square. I’ve seen Death Line, Ash. Do us a favour and stop bullshitting me, OK? Just piss off!’ Gareth jumped to his feet and stepped smartly between the closing doors, leaving Ash in his seat with a strange, sad little smile on his face.
Gareth marched off up the platform, angry with himself more than anything for allowing himself to get sucked into Ash’s paranoid fantasies. The train accelerated past him. He looked up in time to catch a smeared glimpse of Ash’s face through the last window, his features as blurry as those of a corpse behind heavy plastic.
Gareth watched as the train slid into the tunnel. Its red light burned until the first bend had been navigated.
He reached the end of the platform, glared at the unbroken wall and cursed. He’d been so wrapped up in his anger, he’d managed to miss the exit. He turned round and looked down the full length of platform. There was no exit sign, but that didn’t mean anything, as half the stations on the network were falling apart. He started walking back down the platform, paying more attention to his surroundings. He must have got confused when he’d been talking to Ash, because this didn’t look like Russell Square. In fact, he couldn’t see the station’s name anywhere. Half way down the platform, however, he found the exit. It was still unsigned, but it appeared to be a way out, so he took it.
The corridor led away from the platform and turned a corner. Faced with a flight of steps, Gareth climbed them rapidly. The dull echo of his footfalls disturbed him. He’d noticed a lack of posters on the walls - but then some stations were like that, in parts at least. There were no other people in evidence apart from himself. He moved faster. At the top of the steps, the corridor went left, then right - and then it stopped. It didn’t run into a rough concrete wall or massive steel doors. It didn’t end in barred gates, scraps of litter idling in desultory circles on the dusty, unattainable floor beyond. It ended in a perfectly ordinary, perfectly grouted, green-tiled wall. There was a subtle bevel where one wall joined the next, just as there would be if it was a proper wall, if it was supposed to be there. The effect was like that of an amputation on a living limb. It was a dead end.
Gareth touched his fingers to the cool tiled surface. He was aware of no particular sensation. But a strange feeling was growing inside him, in his stomach and creeping down into his legs. It was fear.
He walked back to the platform, forcing himself not to run, but he passed no other opening on the way. He checked up and down the platform, but there was no other exit as far as he could see.
Movement on the track caught his eye. Moving closer to the edge, he peered into the suicide pit, the space between the rails. He saw it again: a tiny fragment of darkness detaching itself from the background and scuttling away, a mouse.
Then Gareth felt the displacement of air on his face. He looked up but there was nothing to see. The rails began to whine and the turbulence increased. Suddenly, pushing air out of the tunnel ahead of it, a train burst into the empty station at speed. Gareth staggered back from the edge, waiting for the train to stop. But it didn’t. It didn’t even slow down. Once he had realised it wasn’t going to, he started waving his arms in the air and shouting. Not a single passenger caught his eye or reacted in any way. They seemed to stare right through him. Almost as if they were staring at the dark rushing of the tunnel wall.
He watched the red light of the disappearing train with an emptiness growing inside him that felt like death.
Ash told the police that London was built not on clay, as most people believed, but on celluloid. Some of the deeper tube lines bore right through the stuff, he said. Key locations in significant films were not picked at random: location scouts went looking for spots where the material ran close enough to the surface to affect the atmosphere.
His witness statement was not worth the tape it was recorded on.
It had been me who had dragged him into the enquiry after Gareth’s girlfriend had called me to say he was missing.
Gareth, he said, had gone looking for a copy of a lost London movie starring Terence Stamp and Theresa Russell. Ash was one of the few people who had seen it. Since it bore no credits, it was impossible to say who had directed it. The presence of Theresa Russell suggested Roeg, but the style was too laidback for him. Ash suspected the hand of Jerzy Skolimowski, although he couldn’t say why, and in any case the police didn’t give a fuck. They were going to charge him with wasting police time, but when they realised that they would have to get psychiatrists’ reports and all that carry-on, they let it drop and Ash was a free man.
Gareth, however, was still missing. His girlfriend was unconsolable. Couldn’t I do something, she wanted to know. I’d known Gareth almost as long as she had. Surely I had some idea where he might have gone, where he might have buried himself. I told her I’d do my best, but what did I have to go on? Not a great deal.
I checked out the big homeless areas. I rode the tube system - every line, each station. Once I thought I saw the back of his head at Archway, but I lost him in the crowd and later convinced myself I’d been mistaken. I didn’t really know Gareth as well as his girlfriend thought I did. It was more a professional relationship, and a sporadic one at that. I commissioned film reviews off him and various longer pieces. But her need impressed itself upon me.
One night, in the early hours, the phone rang and it was Gareth. At least I thought it was Gareth. It was hard to be sure. His voice sounded a long way off, obscured by static and interference. He kept breaking up. But I managed to pick out the name of a tube station before the line went dead. Russell Square. I was down there at 5am, first customer through the gate. I prowled every corridor, bumped up and down in the old lifts. I peered into airshafts furred with years’ worth of dead skin. Nothing. If I’d been hoping to get, at the very least, a sense of Gareth’s recently departed presence, I was disappointed there, too. Dejected and worn out, I slumped down on to one of the blue metal seats to wait for the next train. On the seat next to mine was an unlabelled, scuffed video cassette.
I took the tape home and played it. There was nothing on it but static. If I try really hard, after a dozen or so viewings, I imagine I can hear Terence Stamp’s voice (the laconic London drawl of The Hit, rather than the forced cockney caricature of The Limey) struggling to make itself heard over the interference on the soundtrack. Or I convince myself that the snowy picture is about to resolve itself into a tasteful interior shot of Theresa Russell’s naked back.
Times when I’m still stuck in front of the screen way into the quiet hours, the bottle on the floor beside me more or less empty, I kid myself the voice I think I can hear is Gareth’s, but then I remember Ash’s talent for mimicry and reach for the remote. Stop, rewind, play.
Nicholas Royle’s new novel, The Director’s Cut (Abacus), is published this month.
The author of three previous novels and more than a hundred short stories, Nicholas Royle lives in Shepherd’s Bush, west London.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The