Behind the Scenes on the London Tour (St Paul's to Borough Market leg) | A J Kirby
You get to see some strange things as a city guide. We’d congregate in the City Arms on a Sunday night and a subtle game of one-upmanship would take place. And sometimes, when the drink really flowed, when it was one of those nights the fire was crackling and it was miserable outside, or else maybe there was a tube strike, most of us would get that sparkle in our eyes and it would get altogether less subtle.
Colleague of mine Martin, a historical fiction writer, claimed he’d seen The Flying Dutchman “chipping up” The Thames one misty day, and when we laughed at him, accused him of making it up for better tips, he acted all sulky, said that there were: “more things in heaven and earth, you bastards, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Davey, who liked to think of himself as something of a street-philosopher, piped-up then. Said he could beat The Flying Dutchman hands-down. Davey claimed he’d been doing a ghost walk one smoggy night, when he’d spotted “the actual ghost of Jacob Marley, clanking his chains”.
No matter drinks we took, however, I was always reluctant to tell them my own tale. It happened during my second week on the job. This is the first time I’ve ever told anybody about it.
Like everyone else at the company, I was moonlighting. Waiting for the moment I could finally explode upon the scene in my creative career of choice. We all of us begin like this; thinking we’re too damned inventive to be constrained by any common or garden PAYE job. We all of us start out thinking positively, imagining that leftfield like working as a city guide, telling stories and bon mots, engaging with people – real people – will be okay, will be about the best compromise we can make between feeding our souls and our bellies.
I thought I’d be the exception to the rule. When I took the job, I was living a very temporary existence. Couch-surfing, occasionally doing bar work, moving from girl to girl as whim dictated. No point putting any real commitment into any of it, because I’d only have to go and change it all once I ‘made it’. I’d had my hopes raised: an agent in the city had told me my film script, The Narrows, had ‘great potential’. Claimed he’d hawk it round the studios; was sure it was only a matter of time before a bidding war would commence. It was, he said, “written in the stars that the film was a blockbuster.”
A friend, a jobbing actor who’d recently moved on from city guiding to dressing up as Dracula outside the London Dungeon, put in a word for me with his old boss. The first week was great. The boss presented me with a cheque which was enough to cover nearly a month’s rent, and all I had to do was some ‘research’ into my ‘patch’.
The day before my first actual tour, however, everything changed. I was plotting up on some reference material when suddenly I experienced this inexplicable sinking feeling, as though I’d just been dunked in the Thames. I felt it in my very bones, this awful flutter of apprehension, as though dread had wings. My first instinct was that somebody close to me had died. Indeed, I got as far as tapping my parents’ landline number into my mobile’s keypad, but then, again, for no reason I can explain, I found myself instead calling my agent. He answered after three rings. I stammered out some excuse for my call. His response was to tear my world apart. For it seemed he had no idea who I was. And when I frantically explained I was the screenwriter of The Narrows, he was none the wiser. Eventually, he told me he was going to hang up, and I begged and pleaded with him not to, but to no avail.
Needless to say, I made like Davey and I communed with the spirits. I obliterated memory, massacred sense. The next thing I recall is being yanked out of a lovely dream about being presented with the Oscar for Best Screenplay, by the insistent chirrup of my mobile. Still numb, still bereaved, I autopiloted my way out of the house. To this day, I do not know how I managed to get myself to the starting-point of my tour, but somehow I did.
I was met in the shadow of the great dome of St. Paul’s by my party. They were not a happy few. There was a nuclear family group. Father couldn’t resist rolling up his sleeve and making a big show of staring at his watch as I made my unkempt arrival. There was also a brace of obvious tourists. Romanians, I was later to discover. Apparently they hailed from Transylvania. Quarter-heartedly, I apologised to them for my tardiness, and one of the Transylvanians smiled and said, in terribly broken English: “be late not be never!”
We set off. A bitter wind blew off the Thames and caught my words as I tried to remember what I was supposed to say about the wobbly Millennium Bridge. I let them take photographs while I tried to think of something, anything, to say about Tate Modern as we closed in on the South Bank. Somehow, though, by the time we’d reached the Globe, I’d managed to re-wire my brain so that it buzzed faintly with at least some of my usual creativity. And by the time we’d reached the old bear pit at Bear Gardens, my tongue was sweet with lies. None of my party seemed any the wiser about these untruths, these myths I spat through my teeth.
We pressed on for the winding streets of Borough Market. Here, crowds billowed close around us, and there seemed to be some excitement up ahead, close to where there is a waxwork of a man hanging in a gibbet outside the Prison Museum. I had a good story about the identity of this man and I thought it might be the highlight of the tour. But, at the very moment I was about to look up at that fake corpse, that cramping, sinking feeling stole up on me all over again.
It was as though God, or Prospero had clicked his Brobdingnagian fingers: a vast, cold-compressing and air-raid blanket thick shadow suddenly swept up the street. Tar black and treacle sticky the air went, and my knees turned to water. It was as though a space ship the size of London had rolled in, eclipsing the sun. Indeed, so sure was I that this was the only explanation for what had happened, I barely dared look up.
Instead, I regarded the faces of the others in my tour party, and this was when a larger shock manifested itself. For nuclear family, Transylvanian lovers, all of them were entirely unmoving, their faces fixed, frozen, treacle-set into place. Spoilt brat son still enraptured by his mobile phone, Father in the midst of grabbing his camera from his bumbag. And all around them swirling that same, uniform dullness in the faces of all and sundry.
And for a beat, I wondered whether my own blood had run dry, as the others’ had. But, finally, with a great creaking and groaning, as though I was shaking myself out of chains, I raised my chin. Looked up to the heavens. And I saw…
…A vast emptiness. There was no space ship hovering above us. There were no clouds, no stars, no plane trails thrusting across the apex of it. There were no blinking lights at the top of skyscrapers; there was no moon. All I saw was a fuzzy kind of blackness, and within it, one thing: a white cursor flicking on-off like on a computer screen. As though the vastness was waiting to be written on, or imagined.
As I looked, the cursor changed. Morphed into that same weak, smog-clagged, bottom-heavy sun had always been there. And slowly, incrementally, the darkness lifted. As it did, I felt a cry of revulsion, of incomprehension, rising in me.
Without quite knowing why, I reached out for the hand of Oona. Touched it at the very moment the shadow subsided, so that the warmth of me must have felt like an electric shock. Certainly, she jumped, glared at me. And then tried to pull away. So I dragged her. “C’mon, we must go!” I led her off into the labyrinth, not really knowing where we were going; just knowing I needed to be away. Off grid.
We barrelled past an eccentricity of market stalls, crunching apples under our feet, our shoulders jolting against passers-by, eliciting angry shouts. I thought I could hear the harsh voices of the rest of my tour-party too, especially that of Oona’s boyfriend. Above us, London Bridge reared, and I sought out the safety-net of it, but as we passed underneath the lip, that same shouting became transformed. Translated itself into odd echoes which ambushed us from wild angles. At one point, it sounded like a chorus of shrill voices, singing London Bridge is falling down.
But I ran on, dragging the girl with me. And as I ran, I was struck by how pixelated the geography was. How ill-defined. It was as though this region of London hadn’t realised it needed to be on show and, as we ran, it frantically attempted to describe itself.
It did so in caricature. This was a cartoon London which comprised only landmarks and blue plaques: only the must-see was seen. And if I looked into the distance, I could literally see the hand of God, or of Prospero, painting by numbers, madly designating London as real again.
The thought of this blankness we were running into swelled my brain, and eventually I wobbled to a halt, gasping for breath and for the safety of a London I knew.
Oona recovered herself more swiftly than I. She demanded to know what was going on.
I explained, furiously gesturing to the red-brick archway which sheltered us. As I pointed up, brick upon brick was slowly realising itself, being created, seemingly, from thin air, and then as we watched, being cemented into place. There was a loud thunk as the lodestone slid home.
The Transylvanian raised an eyebrow. “You think London creates itself for you? That if London Bridge falls and you are not here, it does not really fall? That is a very solipsistic idea.”
I gulped. Tried again. But before I could, Oona’s boyfriend panted up to us. For a moment, I thought he might push me up against the archway wall, drive a stake into my heart, but he was remarkably forgiving. He simply shook his head and said that it was the strangest tour he’d ever been on.
I tried to apologise. I needed them here with me, to assuage the weirdness. But he interrupted, told me they were leaving now, that he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be presenting me with a tip.
And so I stayed, breathless and wobbly, waiting for the rest of the party, that nuclear family, to catch up. But they never did. Must have disappeared into the crowd. Or else been swallowed by that blank-page London sky.
Eventually, I stumbled away, blinkering my vision, only looking directly in front of me, hardly daring to look to the sides for fear of seeing my world being constructed sewn into place.
Now, if one of my tour-party loses a glove and wants to go back for it, or else they want to step off my beaten track to look at some off-route London-building, I won’t oblige them. I don’t want to have to face reality having to mould itself around us.
I walk the straight lines, keep to the schedule. I won’t tempt fate. I won’t peek round a corner and catch it unawares. There is no “behind the scenes” on my tour. Nosiree.