an extract from the novel
"Conrad Williams' novel of a world beneath our
own positions itself somewhere on the spectrum between Iain Sinclair
and China Mieville, but moves off smartly at an oblique angle to both.
Williams may be in the process of developing a new genre, a kind of
matter-of-fact Gothic which can draw conclusions about the contemporary
heart by rifling its dustbins. Readable, rebarbative and frightening."
-- M John Harrison
Low sun turning the cement of the high-rise a dark amber.
You get off the bus and the smell isn't of the city at all, it's of
clean air, fresh and cold, the kind that puts you in mind of a childhood
spent out of town, in woods and fields, hunting for conkers, chestnut-picking,
a Sunday morning playing football at Cherry Tree Farm
where the smells of wintergreen and mud on football boots is somehow
a part of the magic. It's a smell that the city borrows, magics out
of nowhere, maybe once or twice a year. It broadsides you, along with
the paintbox sunset, and you suddenly feel the city's power, its beauty,
its pull. Every city has its pull. Every city is a black hole, drawing
you in, drawing you towards an unknowable singularity.
I climbed the stairwells until I came to her floor. Graffiti -- amateurish
tags, silvers, bombings -- tongued the brickwork, robbing it of its
natural colour, all the way along the corridor. I stopped in front of
Yoyo's door and listened. An argument was raging in one of the flats
on either side of hers, and someone on the floor below had a stereo
ramped up: Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Last Beat of My Heart.
The bass thudded through my feet. It didn't exactly help me to relax.
I knocked on the door three or four times over the next five minutes.
Waiting, listening. The argument stopped, to be replaced by the sounds
of repeated slamming against the door, a man grunting and a woman coming.
I shuffled my feet and knocked again, bent over to have a peek through
the letterbox. Unopened post scattered on the floor. Deeper into the
flat, grainy darkness, but at the centre of it a pale oval, a lamp,
maybe, with a very low wattage bulb.
'Yoyo?' I called to it. Light, shade, light again. Someone was inside
the flat, moving through it. 'Yoyo?'
I turned, looked out towards the Paddington Basin. The sun had disappeared
beneath the rim of the city and the sky was a bruise of blues and purples,
even greens. The woman stopped moaning and a few minutes later there
came the sounds of plates in a sink. There might have been none of what
I thought was happening actually going on: it could just be a single
occupant listening to a CD called Domesticity. Track 1: Argument;
Track 2: Fucking; Track 3: Washing-up. I quite fancied
a spot of washing-up at that moment. Washing-up seemed like the most
wondrous task imaginable next to what I was doing.
I knocked again.
Yoyo said, 'Go away.' Her voice was tired. Suicide tired. I imagined
her sitting alone on the sofa, daydreaming of Saskia broken open on
a wet road. How long would you have to go, how lost would you have to
be before you found that attractive, desirable? How tired?
'Yoyo,' I said. 'It's me. Come out to play. Come on.'
'I can't, Adam. I can't.'
I smelled stale pizza, stale curry. Delivery life. I smelled the kind
of air breathed into and out of a person who hasn't known any fresh
for days, maybe weeks. I wondered when she had last stepped out on to
this corridor. When had she last eaten something she didn't dial up
'I'll buy you a steak,' I said. 'Steak and salad and a big glass of
'Ice cream. And then we'll go for a walk. Hyde Park at night is beautiful.
Because you can't see the dog shit you're treading in.'
'Adam. I can't.'
A beat. 'Then ... wait.'
I waited. Darkness came on. The paint-sprayed nonsense on the brickwork
faded to grey gleams. I heard footsteps on the lino. Slippered feet.
She opened the door. Her face in the crack: one eye, the corner of her
mouth. She was wearing one of her floppy hats.
'I'll walk with you,' she said. 'But nowhere busy. I don't want people.'
'Then let's go for a drive,' I said.
She was painfully slow leaving the flat. She had lost weight. Her duffel
coat seemed to weigh her down. Beneath it she wore pyjamas stained with
gravy. She had not changed out of her slippers. There was a book, of
course there was a book, peeking out of her pocket. I caught a picture
of a woman standing before the sun, lifting her arms to it, a great
mane of black hair cascading down her naked back. A title: Goodbye
I drove. She said, 'I was in the bath earlier. I found the mouth parts
of an insect embedded in the flesh of my thigh.'
That nearly had the Yaris into the back of a Bedford Transit van before
I'd made third gear.
She said, 'You know that on Earth, there are about one and a half million
species of animal that we know about? That we've named? A million of
those are insects. Thousands of new species of insect are found every
year. There could be up to thirty, that's trente, that's dreizig
million species still undiscovered. They reckon that the number of insects
in one square mile equals the world population. People, that is.'
I kept quiet, concentrated on the traffic. I didn't know where to take
her, like this. I felt we should walk somewhere, but in London, where
can you walk where there are no people? Sometimes it felt that there
were more people in London than insects in a square mile.
'Just think,' she said. 'In summer, my windows open, I might have the
insect equivalent population of London in my living room.'
'What bit you?' I asked.
'I don't know,' she said, her voice full of interest, as if we were
discussing the plot of one of the books she was reading. 'Wouldn't it
be great if it was an undiscovered insect?'
'Yeah,' I said. 'Smashing.'
'I can't get it out. And I don't know how long it's been in there.
It could have been there for years.'
'Maybe you should see a doctor. Maybe it could go bad. Infect you.
Jesus, you've got an insect's mouth, its filthy mouth in you. What was
it eating before it ate you? Jesus.'
'Oh stop it, Ads,' she said. Humour, strength was coming back to her
voice. She was looking around her, at the lights and the people on Park
Lane. She wound the window down. Fresh air, still that magical hit of
fresh air, even here, in Toxic City Central. 'I looked it up in an encyclopaedia.
Insect mouth parts. I saw the mandible, the labrum, the maxilla. No
She turned and stuck her tongue out at me, waggled it lasciviously.
'Jesus,' I said again. 'Still, it could be worse. You could have an
insect's arse trapped in your skin.'
She laughed. 'Do you want to see it?'
I shook my head, took the car into Mayfair, towards Piccadilly.
'Let's go to the river,' she said. 'I want to see the river.'
So we turned south.
© Conrad Williams 2004
London Revenant is published by The Do-Not Press (2004).
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