So I’m walking down this street in west London –
No, of course not right now. Right now I’m sitting in my office typing this. I’m just using the present continuous for vivid narrative effect. Look: I’m walking down this street in –
What do you mean, am I sure? Listen, I taught English as a Foreign Language for fourteen years. Of course I’m sure. Present continuous. Vivid narrative effect. I’m walking –
No, this is not going to be about books.
I can’t help that. I promised I’d tell this story about dreamy autopilot rails and Zen states “someday”, and I didn’t really give it much thought, b-t since this is Friday and time to wrap up the blog, it turns out someday has to be today or these people won’t get to hear it. Ahem. So I’m walking –
Are you going to let me tell this f---ing story or what?
So I’m walking down this street in west London, early Saturday morning and pretty hungover. The night before, I was at a party held by some Polish students of mine in a house they’re renting together while they study English over here. I’m young and single and trading off my cheaply-won status and stature as an EFL teacher (4 week training course, one previous job for one year at a cowboy school in Istanbul – cheap indeed) and some of these Polish girls are drop dead gorgeous and very sexy with it. No way was I going to miss that party. Unfortunately, I spent most of the night chasing the drop dead gorgeous Marlene Dietrich look-a-like who had approximately zero interest in me, while ignoring her drop dead gorgeous raven-haired green-eyed friend who kept plying me with whisky and would, I discovered a few weeks later, have dragged me into bed at the slightest hint of attraction on my part.
So anyway, I wake up early next morning, dispiritingly alone, in a small spare bedroom and feeling decidedly the worse for wear. I remember I’ve agreed to meet some friends across town for lunch, so I dress hurriedly, steal some aspirin from the bathroom and crunch them down, then slip out the door without waking anyone. The latch snaps shut behind me.
At which point I also remember that I came here last night in a taxi with Marlene Dietrich and her raven-haired friend, in the dark and already a little drunk, and as a result I have not the faintest idea where exactly in west London I am. This is a quiet residential street, amidst what looks like a maze of similar quiet residential streets. I don’t know where the nearest tube station is, I don’t even know if they have tube stations in this part of town. To be honest, at this point I wouldn’t even swear that it is west London we’re in. I might have misheard that part.
And this is where the Zen thing kicks in. I set off down the street without hesitation or conscious thought, navigating, I realise much later, by the sounds of distant traffic (head towards them) and then the one or two other people I see leaving the houses I walk past (follow them!). Though I haven’t consciously realised it yet, these cues will inevitably lead me to public transport of some sort and an accompanying You Are Here-type map. Autopilot on, situation dealt with. Meanwhile, it’s a bright, slightly frosty London morning, my head doesn’t hurt too much anymore – enjoy.
Until, that is, the guy with the cornflakes. Or more correctly at this point, the guy without the cornflakes.
Looking back, I guess he picked me because I was moving slower than anyone else (London pedestrians, un-hungover, tend to scoot along at a fairly rapid rate). Or maybe it was just the general aura of minor damage and unkempt blur that I was almost certainly radiating that morning. Who can say for sure? At any event, what happens is that this slightly shifty looking guy comes shuffling up to me, and says:
“Look, mate, can you do me a favour?”
“Uhm,” I say. (There are sub-routines of hazard awareness within the hungover Zen software, it seems.) “Depends what it is.”
“Well. See that shop there, on the corner?”
“Well, could you go in there and get me a box of cornflakes?”
“Large or medium?”
“Oh, large, large. I mean, look, I got all the money and everything.” He does. He hands it over. “Just a large box of cornflakes.”
So I head across the road to the shop, step over the threshold and into the grocery-smelling interior where two men are chatting across the counter. The cornflakes are on a high shelf at the back. I point.
“Could I get a large box of those cornflakes, please.”
In the efficient, minimalist silence of London corner shop service, the man behind the counter steps up on a small wooden stool, hands me down the cornflakes, takes the money, makes change. We do mumbled monosyllables back and forth, the pencil sharpener shavings of polite exchange and discourse. I head back out into the wintry sunlight with the prize under my arm.
My newfound friend-in-need is still where I left him, on the other side of the street. I cross, I hand over the cornflakes.
“There you go, mate.”
He is overjoyed. “Thanks, oh thanks so much. Thank you.”
“Wait, don’t forget your change.”
He turns back. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Thanks, mate.”
And off he goes.
It takes me about another ten minutes to find the tube station. It’s the Metropolitan line, above ground at this point. I sit slumped in the carriage, lean my head against the grimy window pane beside me and gaze out at north west London in the winter sun. Eventually, the train jolts, bangs my head on the glass, jolts again and starts to move.
It’s three stations before I sit up abruptly with the first conscious question of the day in my head:
Cornflakes? What the f--k was that all about?
Zen state, you see. I didn’t think to ask, I just dealt with it.
B-t I still wonder, occasionally, even now, nearly twenty years later. What was that all about?
And I’ll never know.
Have a nice weekend. --Richard Morgan