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November 2008
HATFUL OF HOLLOWAY

Mark Liam Piggott
A rusty spring bursts from the bank holiday morning as if from an old mattress, a dirty day I want over so’s I can get on with the funny business of dying with that familiar double-act, remorse and shame.
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Double-parking the snot-green LBI van opposite the Hen & Chickens, I toot Murf, his upper half projecting from half a hole of his own digging like some Celtic zombie in an orange bib. Seeing me at the wheel Murf relaxes and lowers his shovel, brushes the cement dust from his hair, which makes it go whiter still. Eyebrows like O’Connell Bridge in a snowstorm, his nose a 24/7 charity event.

After checking my watch again and murmuring an atheist prayer, I lean over the ripped seat covered with Sport babes, ancient McBreakfasts, the complete works of Sartre and other manual detritus, and wind down the squeaking window.

‘Pint?’

Unsurprisingly, Murf agrees. I’m a surveyor, he’s labouring under the impression he’s several layers down the ladder, and it being the spring holiday he’s on double time. Murf jumps in the van and I perform my usual embarrassing seven point turn in St Paul’s Road.

‘There’s 22 pubs on the Holloway Road,’ says Murf in the rough-ground Finglas accent. ‘Let’s take them all on.’

Murf speaks with the local authority which is his bread and butter. Prior to becoming something indefinable on highways he was employed by the licensing department, which had turned out to be a mistake akin to giving the Reverend Jim Jones the task of organising a harvest festival.

Murf labours under the misapprehension that each of the 22 ‘proper boozers’ (as opposed to wine bars, Turkish false-wall harems and IRA shebeens) of the Holloway Road is a doorway to an alternate universe — one where everything’s fine. They all seem the same to me, but I’m killing time so, safe in the knowledge that Arsenal are playing away leaving the pubs free of Henry-clones and Pires-lickers, I pretend-reluctantly agree. At least there’s something to celebrate this dismal day: the papers are full of the funeral and subsequent death of Tony Parsons.

After crashing the van outside the Union Chapel we walk down that funny green bit by the railings and take our chances at the lights, drivers regarding us balefully. The green man flashes for a nanosecond and we cross.

There’s something edgy about Highbury Corner, something messy, North and South Islington meeting head on in a collision of cardboard boxes and posers, chuggers and chin-waggers, blind dates waiting for murderers who never show and the twin twins: two young black guys in trackies and elderly whities in suits twirling brollies as they march down Upper Street to oblivion. They say there’s a third, somewhere, no reason to doubt.

We start at The Cock, crowing ambitions to be part of Upper Street. Once I knocked Arthur Mallard off the stool he kept wet. It was an accident; I quite liked Yus My Dear as a pimply youth since I felt it reflected my existential anxieties of the time. Now Arthur’s long dead, gone to that great hole in the ground, but my anxieties are breeding even as I don’t.

As he still thinks I’m the bossman, Murf buys the first round: I stick to Guinness, safe in the knowledge I can probably manage to stay alive so long as I stick to the porter. Murf volunteered to work weekends because he has no family, no wife and child to claim his time. I volunteered because I do.

My wife Ursula is a dispassionate woman of Angel stock, a dirty blonde with Munchausens-by-proxy who works Up Chap selling knock-off undergarments to crazed gender-benders and liberated columnists.

Murf raises his glass, lethargic zeal in his cement-grey eyes..

‘To the Great North Road!’

Replenished, we leave The Cock and pass Highbury Magistrates Court, where two groups of youths in hooded tops wave baseball bats at one another like a cloned posse of Skywalkers, unsolitary Solos. Murf doesn’t notice; he’s from North Dublin, where such incidents are apparently commonplace.

‘The school I went to,’ he insists, again, ‘was torched so often they rebuilt it on stilts. Even that wasn’t high enough, so in the end they suspended it from this ginormous crane three hundred feet over the Liffey. Whoever fucked the ball over the fence had to dive for it or be kilt and buried in a shallow grave by the Brothers. T’was grand craic.’

In the Wig and Gown we encounter a bunch of judges, roaring bellicosely as a policewoman unbuttons her blouse. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Bernie Winters. I drain my pint so I can’t see her wobbling things. But nevertheless it’s all slightly disconcerting, like entering a tube carriage to discover everyone reading Mein Kampf. She’s good for a copper: strippergram standard. Murf’s already out the door. I follow.

Just before The Bailey some little insect enters my eye and writhes, making me weep like a Jainist in an abattoir. It’s not my style, generally, to reveal my feelings; it’s the family way. The word ‘taciturn’ could have been invented for my grandad, if it had had fewer syllables.

‘Someone lent me this magazine the other day,’ says Murf casually, ‘Shit Lovers.’ About women being covered in shite. Disgusting. Nearly made me throw up.’ Murf’s head sinks beneath his orange bib like a tortoise.

The Castle’s full of pilgrims from Wrexham, off to Hoxton to find Jarvis Cocker. They’re wasting their time. He no longer lives there, and writes crap songs. I regard them with scorn: their NHS specs, their Pulp t-shirts, their fake Yorkshire accents. But then, I can talk: I speak like a barrow boy, yet my father is the fourteenth Earl of Greatham.

I always forget about the fishtank in the current incarnation of The Firkin. Each time I enter it’s there and I’m surprised and go and look at the fish, and every time I look at the fucking fish I become bored in seconds. Murf brings over the drinks and proceeds to talk shit with an ‘e’. I look round the bar. It’s gone gay again, velvet shorts and pink freesheets, fag hags holding fag holders. I raise my tired, tearless eyes to Sian Williams on the telly, smiling

‘The government has announced plans to explode a cataclysmic biological bomb over central London at some point in the near future. A government spokesperson defended the policy, saying exploding huge bombs was inevitable in the present climate and there was no other way of preventing terrorism. Back to our main international headline now, and Sue Pollard…’

Unless you count Murf’s unusual take on the Daniel Libeskind extension at UNL, nothing of much account takes place before the rail bridge at Holloway Road station. In the unibar of the Poly, I once got twatted by two public schoolboys. It hurts twice as much. I remember Spoofers when it was the Holloway Tavern and had lock-ins. Now they all do, and it isn’t the same. I’m not one for the new licensing laws. Amateur drinkers, the dangerous bastards. With Wildean wit, some student puts Abba on the jukebox.

Murf chokes on his pint. He used to be a glockenspiel-basher in a band called ‘Anachronism’. The name was ahead of its time so they changed it to George Monbiot’s Airmiles. Murf still can’t believe he hasn’t been covered on Stars in their Eyes (even though the song, Fuck Nick Hornby, only reached 256 — in Felixstowe).

Murf’s not stupid. Far from it. Just a little bewitched, some chemical imbalance which raises unwelcome voices when least welcome — think Terreblanche at Granita. Luckily the next watering hole we stumble on is Holloway’s finest: The Litten Tree, aka the Happy Slapper. I’m not disappointed. Some six-year-old mistakes my nervous twitch (damn insect) for a propositional wink and glasses my shin. This would be bad enough, but he’s broadcasting the scene to a bloodthirsty multiverse via satellite on his Balamory mobile. I wall him up.

‘I’ll kick you so hard in the testes you’ll need an operation!’

I never did get the hang of the lingo, but fortuitously the youth is bemused and scarpers. One of those days. In the Kings Ead my groin starts to itch. It’s been getting worse ever since I got back from Barbados. Spent from procreation with some admin assistant from Sheffield I had fallen asleep under a palm tree, and now there’s this swelling, like some moral shadow. My cock has turned into the pope. I need to piss, so as I point my pontificating pilot at the porcelain, I text Ursula.

It’s a sad fact of my desperate life that I can only urinate to the strains of Haircut 100. Nanny used to play it as she helped me onto my potty. I wasn’t young. So now when I need to go I send my wife a text and she texts me back, causing the ringtone on my mobile to tootle Fantastic Day. I sigh with relief and read her message:

Karma stash crack cid coming x

I shake and tuck myself in, concerned. Did I tell you I have a daughter? Her name is Karma, and she’s a crack dealer down the Marquess. Not quite what I’d had in mind; she never gives me any. That’s the trouble with pre-teens these days, no respect.

Two teen Goths troll past, happy in their gloom, one wearing a t-shirt proclaiming forthcoming dates for a band, Mordred the Bastard. ‘Enter their blood-soaked crypt’, the t-shirt reads, ‘Bournemouth 28th, Lyme Regis 29th, Paignton and Torbay tbc.’

It’s one of those cloudy March days that can’t decide their seasoning: cement skies, cryptic breeze and a cold kind of warmth you only get on daylong benders. The Holloway Road streaks like a skidmark, silver grease from the axle-undies of Longford lorries, pavement pizzas courtesy of suicidal students from lonely eyries above the Hagshead & Headshag, the great north road a grieving canyon aiming for the hills of Highgate, whose villas and turrets never get closer. Class perspectives.

As he recounts various readers’ letters from the pages of Shit Lovers, with an alacrity of memory I’ve never previously noticed, Murf purchases some fags from the Kosovans outside Mothercare. Bad move. Counterfeit, lined with mercury and poison. Murf begins to cry. The Nag’s Head has become a carpet shop. His sums are all out accordingly.

In the Hercules Ursula texts me unexpectedly and urinal warmth spills down my leg. Wish I’d gone for darker trousers. My bellend is throbbing, and I wonder if it’s the barmaid. She’s dark and wears a transparently awful Lycra dress, giving her the appearance of Jenny Eclair in a condom. I scratch and itch. Oh, the text?

Karma nicked cid cmng 2 gt you x

Thankfully there’s a brand new pub further up. Used to be a hospital but it lost in a competition with the Royal Free, so now the main bar’s on the theme of an operating theatre: the bar staff wave scalpels, you lie on the table where you are anaesthetised with your spirit of choice. A Weatherspoons, I believe. The Quays is more like something out of Casualty: raw wounds, sirens, punters with saucepans jammed on heads.

The rear wall of the Turkish restaurant dissolves and we are in a harem-themed bar populated mainly by castratos in gauze trousers. Murf has a shish kebab, I have chick peas and falafel. I really do. Murf shows me a few pages from Shit Lovers: the readers’ wives section, tasteful toilets and tasteless theatrics. I pass on the köfte.

Inspired by the Moorish murals, Murf converts to Islam.

‘Can’t you wait?’ I ask him, a trifle peeved. ‘You know they don’t drink.’

‘What?’

‘Muslims. No booze allowed. It’s against their whatever.’

Murf is unconvinced. In the Mulberry Tree he expounds on his religious theories, none of which are entirely convincing. I’m tempted to switch to spirits; Post-hummus, my stomach is the size of Sandy Toksvig.

Archway beckons. The tower, Darth Vader, fond memories of eleventh-floor signings, the melodic sounds of fist against glass. Murf doesn’t know I got sacked from the surveyors’ department. All because I surveyed the neighbourhood and found it wanting. In my final report I compared it to the desolate mind of Paul Winterburn: tumbleweed, sandstorms, agonised shreiks in a dystopian gloop.

I’m presently employed as a temp photocopier. According to pater the sole purpose of photocopying machines is to provide gainful employment to nonce dullards in cheap shirts. Naturally, I disagree. As we do about most things: Karma’s schooling, for instance. He wanted to pay for her to go to Roedean, but I thought EGA was adequate. And who was right?

I was.

In Angie’s, Murf renounces Islam. I can sense he’s fishing around a bit, so I tell him about my own religion: that malevolent God, Sudoku. He looks depressed.

I sense he needs more support than I’ve been offering, what with my leaky trousers and daughter-dealing and so forth. In Mother Red Cap I stare at the big-screen telly and watch a baby’s face turn into the sun. Tellytubbies is a vision of humanity in a million years’ time: infantilised imbeciles incapable of cooking or speaking. Murf keeps going on about his wank mag.

‘Shit-lovers. Women, all coated in shite. In their mouths, everywhere. Jaysus.’

‘Murf – you’re into it, aren’t you?’

Bursting into tears Murf confesses that yes, he is a coprophile, which leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. I go to the toilet and text Ursula but she doesn’t answer. It’s an unfortunate moment for my boil to explode: zillions of tiny green spiders scurry from my weeping glans and scurry in every direction. The men either side of me at the urinal say nothing.

Fortunately the end is in sight: The Lion.

Closed. The first syllable of a sonnet.

Murf starts over the lights. I get a sinking feeling, a bit like waking up alongside Steve Igrisovitch.

‘Where – where are you going?’

‘Archway Tavern, the Magic Roundabout. Not strictly Holloway Road, but it will make up for the Nag’s Head.’

‘I don’t think so, Murf. I’m barred.’

‘So?’

‘I just really don’t like it there Murf. The manager’s insane. I swore I’d never drink again. There.’

‘Suit yerself.’

‘Murf,’ I insist, ‘I really would rather you didn’t go in the Tavern. It’s not safe. Why not come with me to Highgate? We could sit outside the Flask and… and…’

‘One day,’ he calls after me from the doorway of the Tavern, ‘they’ll make a film about this. A road trip. 28 pints later.’

I walk up Highgate Hill and stand on Suicide Bridge. Islington, my Islington. I clamber over the railings and check my watch. I am about to plunge to an A1 death when in the distance I hear the muffled explosion, right on time. As I watch, Archway Tower slowly crumples sideways like David Prowse, squashing the Tavern flat. Poor Murf. Screams, sirens.

Then, unexpectedly, Haircut 100.




© Mark Liam Piggott 2008
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