Ivan looked out the window and watched as the people rushed by seemingly oblivious to anyone other than themselves and their phones. He thought back over the last 12 years and remembered many of his friends leaving Vilnius and taking off for new lives in the west. K, Y and J had left for Hamburg, J. junior and C had left for the UK and even S his long time girl had waved goodbye, smiling, take care of yourself and I’ll be back before you know it, Bogdan. Yeah sure. She didn’t want to be held back by an old school literature graduate and migrating to the west was the new black.
Ivan thought about the Lithuanian state of the last 500 years, a massive empire and a tough society where even the Teutonians and the Cossacks had thought twice about invading them. In the last century life had brought many changes. After 1933 with the National Socialist movement beginning to gain momentum, and in the run up to ‘39 parents had loaded their children onto trucks and wagons, fought back their tears, telling them to ‘look after your aunty while you’re away cus she’s not been well, momma and papa have to stay here and tidy up, we’ll catch you up in a few weeks’ then watched as they all, hopefully, disappeared into the forest. Then they waited, inevitably, for the soldiers to come shrieking round in their lorries and herd them down to the station and into trains heading for the east, they had no weapons, nor training for that matter, with which to respond. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ so they say.
Ivan had been out early down to Electric Avenue to grab some veg, meat, sundries and a couple of beers, trying to get ahead so he could concentrate on his writing for a few hours before starting his shift at the Pokaran Kukri just off Brick Lane. He’d walked past the polling station and hadn’t noticed many people queuing to get in. Strange the complacency of these people when there’s so much at stake. I’ll be finished at nine tomorrow, he thought, and wondered what S and her Rasta social worker boyfriend might be doing, hoping they’d head out to catch a gig over in Hoxton or Whitechapel rather than coming over to Brixton like a lot of the trendies seemed to be doing just lately.
Ivan had tried to etch out some kind of living as a writer and tutor for a while, found the going hard with little in the way of monetary reward or recognition, so trained as a nurse and then had followed his friends and took off for London. He picked up his bag and headed out for Liverpool St, catching the bus at the last minute.
Hey Bogey, you made it just in time, we got seven tables full and the odd tables of one to sort, they’re finishing up pretty soon, grab yourself a cup of coffee then get them machines loaded and running. Kishwar, the Nepalese manager had taken to calling him this. She had nicknames for all the staff it seemed. Well I suppose it’d be a bit much for these f***ers to get their heads around a simple language like mine, he thought, as he dropped his bag and shovelled the Colombian best into his cup. Well at least the catering trade has its perks. Ivan settled into the next 4 hours. It was an early start at King’s the following day and he’d already started to feel the heat. Hah! … An easy life in the west is that what they call this?
Bogdan saddled up and headed out for the north. In his head he was Genghis scouting for bison. The snow hit him, his beard seemed to freeze, searching the white desert looking for clues. Sali’s nostrils, steaming, caught something on the air, her ears were twitching and he knew the mare’s sense of survival was more in tune than his own. Out in the distance a yellow brown shadow turned and disappeared into the low sun. Bogdan kicked into the belly of the chase and Sali took off, horse and man tuning in to the wavering magnetic impulse, just a hippy gypsy kicking through the wheat in his path. It had been a good day and even if the prey had proven illusive it was no matter. Bogdan slipped out of the saddle and concentrated on breakfast.
King’s had been particularly hard, too much to do and not enough bodies to do what was expected, so extra hours came as no surprise. Later in his room thinking about his literary heroes, Bogdan thought about Che, the latter day saint, his biography, Christ in red and black, though not so innocent … Hasta la Victoria siempre! …… Beckett, Joyce, Hossieni, Miller …. How could a man get away with so many c***s in the dialogue when Lawrence was ostracised for just the one! Down and out in Paris and London. Orwell was on the list, obviously, and Conrad’s heart couldn’t have been darker than his own at times.
Bogdan had managed to avoid Sally and the boy, luckily, and work kept him too busy to get out that much anyway. The results for the councils had come in and many blue areas were now crimson matching the blood flowing through his veins. Maybe the light does show through on occasion in this 21st century wasteland.
Bogey, you’ve broken all them plates and look at that mess…well, get it cleared and p*** off home; it’s late and I got the tallying to do. Sometimes I wonder why we employ foreigners. ‘Foreigners!’, thought Bogdan, who the hell does she think she’s talking to, and where is it she comes from, bleedin' Kathmandu? Yeah that’s close to the white cliffs, isn’t it?
Ivan thought about his namesake Ivan Denisovich’s 104 detail and Solzhenitsyn’s own time in the camps, and comparing that with this existence, well, life was a cool breath of nicotine and menthol on a summer’s morning high in the crags. Bogey loved to climb and leading was better than sex. It was sex. An exercise in reaching the peak, the hard, icy nipple that comes back to life with the sun’s soft caress. How many peaks are there to conquer? Enough, he thought, plenty. Not much could touch that feeling, that adrenalin rush, in this life.
Ivan was in philosophical mode today. He thought about 1962, the Bay of Pigs, and about Donald Duck ‘n orange sauce comb-over, and our own dear Theresa, making the comparison with that event, the Cuban missile crisis, and the somewhat scary, contemporary political arena…we’re really in good hands, aren’t we? Them two were holding hands and smiling not so long ago, live on TV, and in the eyes of the world. They should get married and take off for Mars, I’m sure there’s plenty willing to supply the rocket fuel, gratis. Then the world might breathe a collective sigh of relief. I’m sure that’d be the sentiment in the middle lower tiers of our own NHS workforce. Everyone he knew was working harder than ever. Most of his colleagues were tired or stressed, from the catering staff, the trainee nurses, paramedics, right through to the doctors and research teams. Not enough funding to go round when you’re spending it all on top managers' salaries and making huge investments in funding the move to a ‘pay as you go’ healthcare system. Nye Bevin must be turning in his grave.
Ivan threw the last frying pan into the machine and took off his apron. He stank and a shower would be more than welcome. The Funky Monkey in Camberwell would be going off later and he didn’t want to smell like pigswill when he made his move through the circuit of pubs that led to its hallowed doors! One last thing, he thought, let's just check the online polls and see what’s happening on the voting front. Whoa, yes! More red than blue...up yours Theresa! All good so far, then. It was early in the survey, but a damn good average. Result!
Bogdan checked FB to see who was going out and where, noticed a few of his friends were heading over to Islington, then Camden but didn’t fancy the tear up that might ensue, so opted to head down to the Hermits and that would be serve as the theatre of operations. He quickly showered, threw on his denim and converse, walked down to Gresham Road, jumped on the 345 and settled into sporadic people glancing, whilst trying to finish off Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer. There’s a woman who’d seen it, done it and got the scarred t-shirt to prove it, but now there was an interesting fella on the scene.
As he passed Caldecot Road he noticed Sali and the rasta sitting outside a bar eating, and Sali seemed to be gesticulating and looked angry. Effing typical. WTF did they wanna come over here for? Tryin' to relax and the sight of them two is the last thing I need right now. As he got up to get off the bus he could hear sirens wailing and it had begun to rain. In a few seconds he’d be in the Hermits.
Sali worked in advertising and one of her clients was Alfred McAlpine. She was busy and reasonably well paid, so far better off than Bogey who had to slog his way through two jobs to get by. He’d done the Hermits and had headed into the Funkey Monkey with a friend he’d met there. It was packed as usual and everyone was getting into the Friday night vibe. Later he felt someone dig his arm and he turned to see Sali standing there red-eyed and not looking her best. Bogdan things have been going awry, she’d hardly bothered with the usual hug and was into her spiel, Manny’s been arrested for shoplifting, it wasn’t him but his friend, who’d run out of the supermarket with a load of razor blades and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, so he’s been done as an accomplice and spent the night in the nick because he wouldn’t, or couldn’t identify his friend well enough. Sali explained, through her tears that Manny, who was working at Belmarsh prison as a drug and alcohol liaison officer, had succumbed to the stress, had started to chase the chinaman, and as a result had made some dodgy friends and some even worse decisions. He’d been out with one of these friend’s and on their way to score, when they’d stopped to buy cigarettes and the ‘incident’ had happened and now he was deep in it and was suspended from his job while investigations and a tribunal could take place to decide the outcome.
Sali continued that Manny had broken down and told her that part of his stress derived from the fact that he was green with envy over her obsession with Bogdan and felt he could never compete with that literary c… ever! Sali didn’t particularly fall for that as a valid excuse and saw it, firstly, as an attempt to gain favour and, secondly, as an attempt to lay the blame elsewhere, rather than admitting to his own failure. She was not happy. Bogdan’s friend had been tactful and had wandered off so they had some more drinks before disappearing to their own flats on opposite sides of the glistening, moonlit Thames. It was just a river, he thought, like in PJ Harvey’s song ‘The Last Living Rose’
Take me back to England
& the grey, damp filthiness of ages,
fog rolling down behind the mountains,
& on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
to the beat of drunken beatings,
past the Thames River, glistening like gold
hastily sold for nothing.
Let me watch night fall on the river,
the moon rise up and turn to silver,
the sky move,
the ocean shimmer,
the hedge shake,
the last living rose quiver.
It has many bridges, he thought, and maybe we’ll cross one of them bridges together. Maybe. After the events in Manchester it came as a further shock a few days later to be confronted with the stabbings and deaths of the victims at the Borough market and London Bridge, one of which was a colleague and staff nurse, who worked at Guy’s. Kings was busy taking some of the wounded and other witnesses who were ashen-faced and stunned by the senseless attacks in the early hours. All hell had broken loose and Bogdan was in the thick of it doing what he could with the others on shift.
Has it all been worth it Bogdan thought to himself as he woke. It was late and he was hot with the mid morning sun streaming thru the window. He’d gone over the events that Sali had explained to him and took some comfort from the fact that Sali had admitted that he was really still very much in her thoughts and a little angry that he’d taken such a long time to follow her after he’d told her a hundred times that she was his number one girl.
Down on the street it was busy, much as normal, people had to get on with their lives and nothing much could prevent the ebb and flow of life in this city, especially when it gets peppered sprayed. People just dig their heels in and push harder, there’s no slowing this train down with a red flag. And talking of red flags Corbyn appeared to be garnering much support amongst his followers. Many young people who never voted had registered and even the press were casting him in a favourable light now and JC looked in with a fair chance of winning this crucial election.
Bogdan cranked over his pc and checked the news coming in from MSN. There was an article in the Independent that showed Jon Snow’s incredulity over Theresa May’s refusal to be interviewed by both himself and Radio 2. It was the first time in 30 years a serving PM had refused to be interviewed by him, as Channel 4’s leading anchor, and she was also reluctant to get into any debates with the other party leaders. She was starting to look pretty weak and shaky in this respect, merely repeating her meaningless political mantra and not answering the questions put forward to her by journalists in live TV interviews. In fact, she portrayed the direct opposite of the ‘strong and stable’ leader of the conservative party that she was trying to exemplify.
Mainstream media were showing clips of the PM in what looked to be huge venues but the reality was a mere handful of journalists present and mostly the conservative faithful in the audiences. Meanwhile, Corbyn was addressing the Birmingham rally with audiences in excess of 6,000 that was streamed live to five other cities that included London and Glasgow. He looked buoyant and even surprised at times at the positive response he was getting. Things are turning in the favour of the many, not the few, Bogdan thought, as the man say's. He snapped his laptop shut, gathered his things together and headed down to the tube, it was getting late and he’d have to get over to Brick Lane in double fast time if he didn’t want to stir the wrath of Kishwar, at the Kukri. He could do without that. In the hothouse, and halfway through the pile of mounting silverware and clattering hors-d’oeuvres dishes his Samsung bleeped, they need me at Kings earlier in the a.m. he thought, but no … meet me tomoz bogey. somewhere. your choice. sorry if i p**sed you off. i got things i need to tell you.
The last day.
Misty rain was gently falling as he pushed his way through the doors of the Hermits, it was early and Sali had a seat and her bag on the one next to her. Good, I’m knackered and don’t want to stand at the bar, he thought. She smiled and got up to give him a peck on the cheek as they hugged their hello’s. This is a better reception than last, he thought, and started to chill out and get comfortable, brushing the damp from his jacket. You take a seat and I’ll get your beer, as she made for the bar. She’s paying, even better!
The hum of voices didn’t distract him and he watched her making small talk with the landlady. You’ll never know how much I’ve missed that easy way you have with everyone you meet, he thought, looking through the window at the 36’s and 176’s snaking by in the dull light. There was an air of unspoken anticipation tonight on the eve of the elections. Sali sat down, pushed his beer across, and announced I’ve kicked the Rasta into touch. He was just a replacement, she said, and as I told you I was angry that you’d taken so long to get your arse over here, I got lonely and well you know what I’m like. Bogdan looked at her, and yes, he knew exactly what she was like, horny as a rhino in a Nairobi national park and the mud got everywhere when she was on the loose! On she went, you know, he’s basically the same kind of guy as you; artistic, sensitive, not quite so eyebrow, but definitely warm, and as far from misogynistic as a girl would ever need her man to be, but he was stupid and he f***ked up big time. So perhaps it was the spur I needed, the writing on the wall was there all along. Bogdan tried to take it in and decipher all this in just the two gulps of Tim Taylor he’d managed to neck. So what you trying to tell me Sali?
Ok I tell you what let’s head down to Waterloo get a pint in the fire station and then take a walk along the embankment or head over to Soho and get a drink in the French Bar and I’ll try to explain as we go. Bogdan nodded his ok and tried not to smile, he knew where this was headed but he thought it was time he played ignorant for a while and settled in for the ride. On the way into town they discussed Theresa, the Saudi arms deals, the failures in the education system, several wars, the NHS and it’s ‘pay as you go’ style, future trajectory, inevitably came up, but there was no mention of the ‘us’ until the quiet of the Embankment as they made their way towards Charing Cross. Sali pulled him towards her, her leather jacket reflected in the fast moving water, as they leaned and looked back over to the National Theatre. The wind off the water rustled through the leaves on the London Planes. Sali was pensive for a while and then she came out with what was on her mind. We both came here for one main reason, she said, and that was to make some dosh and live in a reasonably fast paced city that was fun to live in and we’ve done that now, haven’t we. I know you’re still struggling, but I’ve made enough to buy a small flat in Vilnius so why don’t we just pack our bags, head back to a safer place, and just slow down the pace. I should never have left you, I can see that now, when I look back. She punched his arm cus he was smiling in that curious way he had about him at times like this.
Bogdan pulled out his pouch and rolled a menthol ciggy. Cool as a mountain stream, he said, No, we’re Corbynista’s now, put your money on a deposit for a flat in Camberwell, you can afford that, and I’ve got money coming in too. I’ve kind of gotten used to it here, and sometimes I enjoy the struggle, and I know you do, so let’s stay and fight. Come hell or high water, we’re good for that!
John Woodcock for Political Provocateur