Ahead of her, struggling up the stairs strugglingly was a mother and pushchair, laden with bags and a screaming kid. Homebound workers salmoned past without offering a hand, blinkered by visions of supper or respite.
The comatose staff of London Underground didn’t think of helping the mother. She wouldn’t be helping either. Ten years ago when she had moved to London, she would have. Imperceptibly but perceptibly the city toxified you. Parking across strangers’ driveways, not saying thank you when a door was held open for you, murder. Somehow it got you.
London informed you that you got nothing for a lifetime of decency; not a free glass of water. Not that behaving badly necessarily got you anywhere, but it was generally easier and more fun; and finally any career criminal from Albania or genocidist from Rwanda passing through London got the same medical treatment as you and better housing rights.
You didn’t want to become the sort of person who didn’t help an entoiled mother, but you became one. No one had helped her when she had needed it. And now her help muscles had withered away. Single mothers were especially annoying because of their dishonesty. Very few of them could hack it. They either leeched off friends and family, sucking in services and cash or they botched it up, while maintaining how coping they were.
Outside, on the pavement, a Portuguese junkie was kneeling, while a buxom exorcist wielding a bible, intoned with two back-up entreaters and sprinkled him with holy water.
Sidestepping the adjuration she threaded her way through the clumps of beggars, drug-dealers, thugs and seething commuters that made up Brixton. She ran walking. To get home was all she wanted. The strength of the desire was almost alarming.
She had thought about getting out. She had been thinking about little else. And she hadn’t just thought about it. Job applications. She was convinced she had sent more job applications than any other human being. They had failed. She had written more. They had failed.
Then, while she would have been happy leaving London, her boyfriend couldn’t. Harun worked as a junior information officer at the Turkish Embassy, and just as he was coming to the end of his tour of duty, after three years, when she had been counting on escape, teaching English and getting a tan and a family, they had split up. She knew you couldn’t have everything. Harun farted a lot and always had to be infallible on international affairs, but had a sense of humour and was punctual. Now she was again at the mercy of London’s nightlife.
What was a night-out in London? Pleading your way into a club, past an ear-piece which had grown a moron. Once inside you had to fight to get served, and then your money went as if you were surrendering it to bandits. She had only managed to get the deposit on her flat because of her inheritance from her grandmother. Her grandmother hadn’t been well-off, but she hadn’t been one for drinking, smoking, eating much, buying much, going to the cinema or indeed anywhere. She played Bridge with old friends and was of a generation that worked or starved.
Everywhere she went, on holiday or on business, was better. Dublin, Copenhagen, Istanbul, St. Ives, St. Petersburg, Palermo. You name it, it was an improvement. You’d walk into a shop and the proprietor would say hello instead of assessing how much you would be attempting to steal. Everyone she knew talked of leaving London. Somewhere calmer. Somewhere greener. Somewhere sunnier. Somewhere else.