Tottenham Court Road Ain’t What it Used to Be

We had been on a plane to London with two flight attendants, blonde ladies with beige Hubert coats and a confident swagger. And when we got out of the terminal it was already night and there was a light drizzle. It must have been two or three in the morning.

A black cab pulled up and one of attendants turned back to us and said “I feel we know you already, seeing as we’ve spent the last four hours together. More, if you count the hours before the plane.”

Then they got into the cab and were whisked away.

Siobhan started to complain. “Where are we going to find a cab at this time?”

We were in the middle of a large roundabout which cars sped around, some stopping to pick up people, some just passing.

“We should call an Uber, it won’t be that hard,” I replied. And so I pulled up the app on my phone.

“We have too much luggage,” she continued.

“Then I’ll just order a GL,” and I scrolled through the options. Some prices were three figures and others were fine but when we confirmed the order, they simply canceled, even though we both had the app open.

And I seemed to be carrying everything.

There was a brown paper shopping bag which had a string handle, it had the computers, then some new extender cords. Then there was the bunch of flowers for mum and a green net containing tomatoes.

I began combining everything into one bag.

“This won’t do,” I muttered while Siobhan continued with the Uber. Then I stood with Liam off to the side.

An old fashioned pint glass lay on its side, the remains of beer leaking slowly onto the pavement. It was in the middle of the path and I pushed it with my heal, just to get it off to the side, just in case someone would not see it and trip. But it continued to roll. It kept rolling until it rolled right into the road. And it missed the first car that passed by, but it didn’t miss the next

The glass hit the front left tyre of a speeding black cab and I thought it would be OK, but there was a bang, and then the crunch of glass as the tyre burst.

The cab slid into the car in front and I could hear the cab driver swear,.

”What the fuck was that?!”

The cab came to a halt then another cab rear-ended the second, less forcefully this time but still, a three car pile up. Black cab on black cab on a black misty night.

“Shhh,” I said to Liam. “Don’t tell anyone that I did that.”

We looked over at Siobhan and Lizzie. Red buses, dark vans and black cabs still passed by, and averted the pile up.

Then Siobhan cried out, “I’ve got one! It’s going some of the way and it is open air, and going to Clerkenwell, but we can change from there.”

“But that’s nowhere near where we’re going,” I replied.

It would have to do. I turned around to see a double width, multi-row truck, single story, with open seating. It turned into the roundabout, then it carried on, right past us and Siobhan cried out, ”Quick!” and she started run.

The truck pulled up the other side of the road, against a chicken wire fence, and we caught up with it, threw up our luggage and climbed up behind; then we split across two of the back rows. The seats were black plastic with buttons that glistened in the drizzled night.

A few younger Japanese tourists were already on the truck. They nodded to us and I saw that Liam had gone up front, was with the bus driver. He had his hand on the steering wheel and I thought it did strange that the driver would allow him to drive, but when he turned, it wasn’t Liam. The man just looked like Liam, and I panicked, where was my son, but in fact Liam was at the back next to Siobhan.

The truck lumbered out and off the roundabout, heading westward, into an area that looked part junkyard, part boat dock, part garbage tip.

We passed layers of colored rubbish pressed together in mounds either side of us. Early morning workers were filtering through the rubbish. We had never been up this early to see that before. Groups of them clambered either side of us, dressed in orange plastic overalls and protective hard hats as an early morning sun filtered up over the dock and tip.

To our left a discarded boat painted blue and white with a pair of white iron chimneys sat on a separate mound of garbage. Tied on a wire between the chimney stacks was a sign, the familiar baseball and rooster of Tottenham .

“Come on you Spurs,” I yelled out, but it seemed that we were the wrong end of London to be driving through Tottenham. Perhaps we had landed at Stansted.

Tottenham Court Road

The truck lurched down under a bridge before coming up again and passing more garbage tip. It reminded me of Manila, the Phili-ppines, I thought, but then I said it aloud and the two Japanese girls snickered.

Then the truck took another steep downturn, so that we had to hold onto the seats in front of us, to keep from falling. The seat in front of me buckled under my weight and I had readjust to keep from falling. We travelled down further into a tunnel until the truck finally came to a stop in a concrete land with Barbican grey brutalist walls.

“You have to get out here,” the driver said, ”and we’ll meet you the other side.”

So we got off the truck and crawled across cold concrete on our bellies, for some of the spaces were quite tight, concrete above us, as well as below. Ahead of me was an iron bar that ran horizontally between the concrete layers. It blocked the way and I was starting to feel claustrophobic. Ridges in the concrete added additional obstacles.

“We should go that way,” and I pointed across and to the right, where the space opened up, where we could get on our knees instead. ”How’s the truck going to go around this?” I added.

But the truck was there to greet us on the other side of the concrete. And we climbed back up and took our seats once more, then we set off out for the bus depot.

“Ruth’s book was rejected,” Siobhan said.

“What, wait, how do you know?” I asked. How did she even know who Ruth was.

“I saw it on Facebook.”

“How are you looking on Facebook while we are having to do all this?” I asked. And still, how could she see Ruth’s feed unless she was on my account.

“Well, I’ll get my book published,” I returned.

It was the first time I had admitted to writing a book and I meant the remark with a hint of threat.

The truck pulled up to a stop where we were to be let out again. This time though there was a waiting room and it was inside. It had steps covered in green baize and though a few areas were cordoned off with rope, there were still places to sit.

A sign I finally recognized said ‘Tottenham Court Road’ and I cried out “I know that!”

Siobhan turned and said “Yeah, but how can you?  But you’ve been away so long, you don’t know.”

It irritated me, and I replied, ”Yes, but I spent many of my formative years on Tottenham Court Road.’

Photo of Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics by Roger Marks via Flickr

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