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London Revenant

an extract from the novel
by Conrad Williams

"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 London Revenant by Conrad WilliamsFarm 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 for?

'I'll buy you a steak,' I said. 'Steak and salad and a big glass of red wine.'


'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.'

'Then what?'

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 Girl.

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 glossa, though.'


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 by Conrad Williams
London Revenant is published by The Do-Not Press (2004).

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