By Scott Manley Hadley
London can be peaceful in the middle of the night.
This was something it took you a while to discover.
You have to go off the beaten track but, if you’re trying, you can get to silent suburban streets quite easily.
The peace is relative. There’s always the sound of traffic in the distance. Even in the centre of a park or the middle of a housing estate, there continues the slow, tidelike drawl of the city’s public arteries pulsing through the night. The Euston Road, the Bayswater Road, City Road – all pushing a constant stream of vehicles along them, lights blaring, engines roaring, as the people – usually alone – head to wherever it is people have to be at five in the morning. You’ve often sat and stared at the traffic passing King’s Cross and wondered who these people are. Where are they going? It’s odd – it’s not really, but you like to think it is – it’s odd that there are so many people moving about so out of sync with the normative patterns of society.
This new habit, wandering late, has taken you to strange places. You’ve seen strange things. The people working at the 24-hour shops are strange. But you’re strange too.
You haven’t slept well for years. And now you live alone there’s no reason to lie in bed for the sake of appearances if you’re not asleep. You can – and do – wake at four, five and just go out and walk. Other times, the weekday nights you unwisely go out dancing, drinking, drugging, you try to sober yourself up by walking the hour and a half (or longer if you’re zigzagging down the pavement) it takes to get home. It feels more organic, walking. It does mean you often only get two hours sleep, but you’re young enough to handle that, right?
You’re sat, now, on a bench in the centre of Hyde Park. The Bayswater Road, Park Lane, Kensington Road: these are those you hear tonight, the mechanised oceanic flow floating across the fields to where you sit. You’re not a smoker, but you had a hankering for a Lucky Strike as you skulked down the Queensway earlier, so you’re holding a bottle of Orangina in your left hand and half a cigarette in your right.
You take a drag and smile. You get a kick out of smoking. Not just the nicotine – which you feel as a queasy light-headedness – but from the motions, the routine. You lit the fag with matches, and even that is part of a ritual you find not just charming to watch but fascinating to do. Ripping off the plastic wrapping, flicking open the cardboard lid, tearing out the foil… that subtle, heady smell of rich, fresh, tobacco floating and filling the nostrils. Lighting it, drawing it in, knowing how elegantly bad it is to do… That’s what you love about smoking. Understanding how dangerous it is, but how at the same time no one can tell you off for doing it.
You’ll feel guilty, though. Shame, embarrassment – you’d never want your parents to see you smoking. It’s another of the many things you feel guilty for but can’t stop doing. Drinkers’ remorse you get, shaggers’ remorse, drug-users’ remorse… you feel guilty for overeating, masturbating, shitting… Watching populist television makes you feel guilty, reading the kind of books you enjoy makes you feel guilty, turning up to work five minutes late makes you feel guilty, drinking during your lunch hour, having sex during your lunch hour, the regret you feel when you haven’t done anything fun in your lunch hour… You don’t feel guilty for working, you don’t feel guilty for going to bed early. You feel guilty going for a two-hour walk in the middle of the night on a weekday morning, and you feel guiltier for doing it sober.
You like drinking, you like substance abuse – use – because it gives you an excuse for your actions. You can group things you feel guilty about into one simple explanation. If you get drunk, and then go on a cocaine and MDMA binge staying out in a club until 5am on a Wednesday then shag what you’re pretty certain is a beautiful thirty-something who even through the drug haze you can tell might actually be neither attractive nor under fifty: you can blame all that on the booze. If you meet someone in a bar, tell a series of outrageous lies, spend a lot of money you haven’t got, both get wasted, go back to their place, etc etc etc etc, sneak out while they’re asleep – you can blame all that on your unquashable libido – the error, the sin – is that how you think of it? – is the lust. The actions it encourages are decoration.
You get worried about how Catholic you sound in your own head. You don’t discuss this aloud. As one-night-stands become more normal, as the hipflask at work becomes your standard hangover cure, as you start getting in touch with your dealer more than once a fortnight… Things are slipping, or improving. Your initial remorse, your initial feelings of betrayal have gone – though it doesn’t feel like cheating anymore because you are a single man, it does feel like something you shouldn’t be doing. Spending money on coke makes you feel like you’re being stupid – but were you ever going to spend it on self-improvement, travel or a mortgage deposit anyway?
You shake your head, suck on tobacco. Forget money. You’re a good-looking able-bodied middle class university-educated white man with a full head of hair: money will sort itself out.
You look around the park. Company. There’s a fox about a hundred metres away, balancing on its hind legs and rooting through a bin with its nose. The animals in this city are desperate. The animals are as desperate as you. You’d stick your head in a bin if there was a bottle of wine, a horny stranger, a (sealed) packet of smoked salmon or a full wrap of anything in it. And what’s the fox doing it for? Fried chicken and the salt from a Walker’s crisp packet?
You can scorn, you can jeer, but there are things anyone would go through a bin for. The fox has class, the fox has beauty, the fox is wearing a coat it could sell for a hundred pounds if it knew how to flay itself without dying. It’s going through the bin for things it can’t get at home. A fox doesn’t have the money to wander into Chicken Cottage and order some wings, nor does it have the dexterity (or cognitive ability, electrical connections or supply of breadcrumbs) to get a deep fat fryer installed at home and make some itself. And the fox is ignorant of the social faux pas that sticking your face in a bin is. There’s no loss of dignity for an animal to dine out of a bin.
It’s elegant. Its soft, ginger fur shines in the fake moonlight of the streetlights. On these nighttime walks, you’re often tricked by the false dawn – the glow on the horizon that’s the continuance of the city, not the sun. London controls even the light, defeats the stars. It’s a powerful place. And there’s enough food to feed the foxes with the leftovers.
Foxes are the aristocracy, maybe the trophy wives, of the urban animal world. Beautiful, brutal, charming, powerful. They walk the streets with confidence and a strut reminiscent of chavvy teens. They’re tough, they’re armed: teeth, eyes, ears – they see more, feel more, smell more of the city than we do. How can anyone claim that humans are the dominant species? Humans can barely smell a thing, can barely see a thing; we may be able to think, manipulate and control and make tools – but that’s because we’re unable to do the things we need to do to survive with our bodies. Historically, humans were subservient to animals, we needed them to produce food – now, we’re subservient to machines. We need them to wash, to eat, to communicate. We are not better than animals.
A fox can smell food from a distance – this one walked past two other bins to get to that one. It’s not surviving on luck – it smelt what it wants, and has dived in and got it. You don’t know what you want. But you do know that if you smelt it, you’d dive in and fucking bite everything out of the way until you found it. You think about that couple at Luke’s party, months ago, all the time. Watching them fuck started all these changes. No, that’s not true: how watching them fuck made you feel started all these changes.
Maybe life isn’t so bad. You never would’ve got to see London by night without that unsolicited voyeurism. You wouldn’t have gotten to sleep around, you wouldn’t have rediscovered the pleasure of seduction. You can tell yourself you feel guilty about these things (as you light a second cigarette), you can think that it’s not what you want to do, it’s not what you “should” be doing; you can think this, you can talk like this, but what is it you do when you have a moment to yourself? It’s not anything productive, is it? It’s this. Or… that.
Maybe what you need is a bit of distance. Get out of the city, out of the grime, out of the clubs, the bars; get your desperate snout out of the treat-filled city bins.
You pull out your iPhone and flick through the Contacts, trying to think about who you know with a spare bed out of the capital.
There’s a guy who lives in Manchester with his long-term girlfriend. He’s a bit settled, a bit dull – very 9-5ish – but he used to be fun, at school, which was a long time ago. Maybe if you take up a bottle of JD and a couple of grams he could be fun again. Why not?
Wait… is it the city or the behaviour you need a break from?
Nothing. You smile. The fox climbs down from the bin and walks away, homewards. Sometimes you wish you had a hole in the ground you could curl up in too.
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com. His poetry collection Bad Boy Poet (Open Pen, 2018) and his prose chapbook My Father, From A Distance (Selcouth Station Press, 2019) are available now.