February 3, 2023

Soft City, Fantastic Metropolis – a short story by Gary Budden

“There are certain memories that never really reach your brain. They stay in your blood like a dormant virus.”
– Michael Moorcock, ‘London Blood’

The city was soft. Streets expanded and contracted with the seasons, thumbprints were left in plasticine tarmac. Quick-sand concrete that could pull you under threatened to trap memories, biography butterfly-pinned to the bus shelters and tube signs, pasted over with badly photocopied announcements of upcoming punk gigs, Balkan dance nights, poetry readings, Rock Against Racism.

I saw a man in a yellow trench-coat, chain smoking, blonde hair from a different era. He spoke with Andrew Norton, underneath the Hackney Peace Mural, autumn air scarred by the whirr of development as the high-rises marched into the sky and the train line uncoiled toward The City. They conversed, I watched their lips move. London’s arcane mysteries forever out of reach. Myths and rumours followed the trench-coated man, dangerous habits, Devil-pacts and a lost child. He received a small chapbook from Norton, with the three letters ‘NSM’ emblazoned on the cover. They parted ways, Norton seeming to vanish into dirty air, the trench-coat man heading in the direction of Ridley Road. A group of hooded youths, who laughed and smoked, obscured him from my vision, and he was gone.

The city was soft; maps of my own making I held in my head. Psycho-cartography.  My A-Z, not bought but born, Rodinsky-annotated with faded emotions, defined street names and illuminated postcodes. Flashpoints of biography. Personal history intermingled with the stronger currents that were surging through the city, a bitter argument of smashed glass and shredded pride mingling with sightings of the Stamford Hill Golem outside of Stoke Newington station in the early hours of a Tueday morning. Undine was gone, a Lamia in her place. Jack-in-the-Green was abroad on the Hackney Marshes, with sightings now coming in from Hampstead, Finsbury Park, Highgate Wood, Clissold Park, even now stretching as far south as Brockwell Park and Clapham Common. Word was that an ifrit had been spotted surging across inky sky above the Springfield Marina, startling the mute swans and the river-rats, an avian cacophony shouting at this immigrant myth. The dead alphabet that we lived in was buckling at the seams trying to account for what was happening. Small green shoots were springing forth from the cracks in the old idioms, new lexicons of hope and rage, language-bombs primed and fused, ready to detonate. Our word-golems, truth in their mouths, would soon awake in a thousand doorless rooms across London and begin their work.

I waited by the Dalston Junction. Traffic hummed. Celine’s mastodons lumbered by. I had waited a half hour for The Poet, and still no sign. No one had seen him for months; rumours circulated that he gone underground with the NSM, that he had died in a brawl outside a punk bar in Streatham, he had left the country, he was right here in Hackney. His city, as soft as mine, was quite different in shape, and I needed his knowledge to get to where I was going.

The squat had been taken from us. A 5am assault from a Police force using all of their newly appointed powers, desperate measures implemented by a government that could feel the fabric tearing and the country dying. The Police responded with aplomb, squatters rights no more, a smashing of property and a “fuck off” as habeas corpus became memory. Lucky to only spend one night in the cells, they had told Jerome and Cerise. To my shame, I had fled, leaving an open, half-read copy of Michael Moorcock’s ‘The English Assassin’ as my only greeting to the Met. This was two days previous, and I had not yet seen Cerise. My calls went unanswered and unreturned. Jerome was more forgiving, had been waiting with me for The Poet, but had disappeared in search of baklava and hot coffee. He had one eye swollen from his experience. We didn’t talk about it. I rolled a cigarette as I waited and pulled myself inside my coat for warmth.

“Got a light” came a voice with vague Scouse twang.

I started. The trench-coat man stood by my side, Bensons in his mouth unlit.

“Sure.” A small burst of flame, then smoke coiled round his head as he sucked and inhaled. His trench-coat was tattered and begrimed. A Citizen Fish badge, speckled with rust, clung to it.

“This is for you.” He handed me the volume I had seen Norton pass to him earlier, with an additional envelope bearing the unmistakeable script of The Poet. “Cheers for the light”. He strode off.

I held the New Sincerity Movement manifesto in my hands. A letter from The Poet. An unexplainable wave of nervous nausea swept through me; the cigarette began to taste like the poison it was, and I dropped the smouldering half-smoked stick to the floor, crushed it beneath my boots. Two middle-aged overweight Turkish men, on their customary spot blocking the pavement outside their café, looked at me and laughed. Jerome, coffee in hand and sticky baklava in mouth, appeared by my side.

“What’s up man? Did that fucker turn up?” I obviously looked flustered. I handed him the letter.

“Fucking twat” he exclaimed. “We need to stop dealing with this prick, does he think he’s in a fucking film noir or something?” I didn’t tell him about the man in the yellow trench-coat. Or Norton.

I suddenly felt that I would never leave the city.

We retreated to a pub. Three pints of foaming ale later and I opened the envelope. It was borderline gibberish, a ranting treatise on some form of ‘magick’ as The Poet insisted on calling it, mirror-people, djinns, golems, green men. He was claiming to have spoken with the apparitions that were appearing across London and that somehow the NSM were involved. It made little sense, he told me of his dealings with the yellow trench-coat man and The Prisoner of London. Past and future had telescoped for him, he could see everything now and yes the city was dying but it was also being remade, sprouting in uncared areas, forgotten spots, specks of grit.


Fantastic Metropolis

“Long lines of human faces passed me in endless procession, rigid death masks with the eyelids firmly closed: my own kin, my own ancestors.”

– Gustav Meyrink, ‘The Golem’

The geography bent and buckled. Snapshots of the Prague ghetto in the early nineteenth century. N16. Cerise was after the Golem of Stamford Hill. One of the Hasidim stood outside a kosher pizza parlour, a prominent belly hidden by a smeared apron, smoking quietly, exhaling smoke into damp autumn air. As ever, in this part of town so far from home, just up the road, I was baffled and beguiled; signs in Hebrew or Yiddish, I wasn’t sure, heavy-coated women huddling by bakeries that I never entered. Endlessly intriguing, an eternal disappointment.

Cerise tracked the Golem, and I tracked her. She had let her obsessions consume her, tossed comments in a pub and a loan of Gustav Meyrink infectious and taken seriously, the sightings of ifrits and Green Men doing nothing to help the situation. Her veins were choked with myth. Too far gone to be saved, she was now in the arms of the New Sincerity Movement. I had abandoned her in the squat, this was my penance. Her arm still bore an angry red mark from her night in the cells. My betrayal inked in her skin.

She was my golem, I thought, my creation. So here we were, padding down Oldhill Street, 21st century refugees in a Yiddish speaking enclave, unseen by the Hasidim whom we drifted past in the damp-choked air, fascination gripping me as always, an unreadable expression contorting Cerise’s face as she scanned the first floor windows of the buildings that we passed looking for signs of an unused room. She searched for a room without a door, where the Golem slept, here in London. All she needed was one photograph of it, she said. A small Jewish girl stood cloaked in rain, staring at Cerise as she pulled out her camera and began documenting this trip, unfazed by my immense discomfort. It felt like intrusion, a transgression. Rolled tobacco kept me occupied while she went about her business, my eyes averted from anyone we encountered until this scarlet woman finished recording. Perhaps she felt that everything needed documenting before it was swept away. Her motives had, in recent months, had become inscrutable and opaque.

Further along the street now, approaching the intersection with Filey Avenue. Two young Muslim women, shrouded in black, came in the opposite direction steering wheelchairs through damp mist, the water beads clinging to their burqas oddly beautiful. They were startled by a camera flash, Cerise recording the riot of meaning and history as they passed a Jewish bakers, next to a street sign informing the world we were in Hackney. Fascinating culture smash, yes, but an intrusion just the same. Cerise had given up any hopes, evidently, of integration or interaction. Anger flared.

“That was fucking rude” I said.

“Fuck off”.

We continued in silence. Those same water beads nestled in her red hair, breath-mist gusting from her mouth, my sweat and smoke adding to the mix. She would never find the golem. He walked right by her side.

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