A LINE OF DARK TREES
A GAME OF SQUASH
I can remember almost to the minute the first time I met Paul Moriarty. And that's unusual for me. Some days I won't just forget what I had for breakfast; I'll forget if I ever had breakfast at all.
I'm not sure why Moriarty was different but from the beginning there was an air that set him apart. It wasn't something he had, more like something that was missing and the aura about him that he had it once. Or maybe I was reading too much into it.
The time was just before 7 p.m. on February 3, 1995 and the place was Squash Court #3 at the Southgate Sports and Social Club. I don't profess to remember all of the details without paper props. The squash club had a list of times and places for the scheduled rendezvous otherwise known as squash games and Mildred, the secretary with the iron bound hair clips and severe blue rinse, was a stickler for players keeping their appointments. If you showed up a few minutes late in the afternoon, you’d hear the click of her impatient pen hitting her desk and her sighs following you down the worn hallway to the courts.
I'm not sure how I first became drawn down the arcane halls of the sports club that smelled vaguely of rubber and boiled cabbage, although I had never seen a cabbage anywhere in their vicinity. But London is a city of more than seven million strangers who find themselves in odd suburbs of turn of the century homes and quiet trees, because they want to avoid ghettos like Edmonton and Tottenham. Then they find themselves staring out over chimney pots after dark, vaguely thinking about what happened to their dreams of streets paved with gold. So they eventually make half-hearted attempt to take action. They join squash clubs generally. Or do drugs.
Not earning enough to do drugs I found myself taking the safer option and joining the squash club. I suppose I could have joined a badminton club, but squash offered me a bit more action.
I had always showed promise with the small racquet at school and had rather liked the thwack of the compact little rubber ball on the walls of the court and the mark it made if you hit it really hard. Mr. Rivas had told me I had good technique and had suggested coaching me after school. In the light of the later pedophilia charges brought against him, which I hasten to point out had nothing to do with me, I have since wondered whether his observation had anything to do with my progress as a player. But to this day I like to cling onto the notion it was a reflection of my ability as a player.
So one autumn night I found myself ducking in and out of the sharp gusts of winds that blasted leaves at me between the sycamores to the squat little building at the bottom of the park and signing up for the squash league.
Mildred looked clinically unimpressed, having seen a slew of young men joining the club to get a social life and gradually drifting away again when they found out it didn’t really offer them one.
I wasn't the best player in the league but I wasn't the worst. Mid table obscurity suited me because had I been at the top of the league I would have found myself getting overly competitive to maintain my position. Had I been the worst player I would have lost heart.
I had a competitive streak but also a natural modesty about winning that negated it. My will to win was cancelled out by my lack of a killer instinct.
While I came to know a lot of the players, Moriarty was just a name on the chart before the night he walked into Court #3. He was not much more than a name on the chart when he left, having beaten me with little discernible relish or outward sign of emotion.
At 7 p.m. sharp the small door swung open and there he was in my court, a man of large if not immense frame who was probably a good decade older than me in his mid '40s.
"Moriarty," he grunted under dark brows and gave my hand a firm shake. In that single word I detected some breeding, the cadence perhaps of the parade ground or a second tier English public school.
But Moriarty showed no further interest in conversation. With an abruptness that would seem rude had he showed any interest in me, he tossed up the ball and served with a fine flowing action.
Like a machine he progressed through a couple of sets. He won a close tie break but showed no outward signs of triumph. It wasn’t that he was disinterested or distracted but there was a key part of him that wasn’t in the game.
On a number of occasions I attempted to draw him in with banalities only to receive no response at all.
For a man 10 years older than me Moriarty had a strong serve and considerable upper body strength. He could also move effectively around the court even though his left leg carried a knee support and there was a white streak like the stubborn hint of a scar from days gone by that ran down his calf. There was something curious about this scar. It was like discovering a machine could bleed, I thought as he went through the production process of defeating me.
I didn't dwell on it. I normally find it to be bad squash etiquette to remark on a player's scar during the first game.
We seemed evenly matched during many of the games but there was a disturbing difference. Every now and then a disconcerting feeling would come over me that Moriarty was not playing at the top of his ability while I was stretching every sinew to keep up with his.
Finally after a close set he smashed the ball on an oblique angle. It flew past my head and it was all over for the evening.
I was conscious of the dampness of my hand against the dryness of his palm when we shook hands at the end of the game.
"Good game," I said.
"Yes." And for a second I caught a glimpse of his eyes. Curious. Green like emerald pools, a touch of the Irish perhaps. And then the small door snapped shut like a spring and he was gone.
LIKE A CANARY IN A COAL MINE
I did not see Paul Moriarty again for two months and when I did it was in unexpected and fleeting circumstances.
One Tuesday I walked into my office and was told I was going to Hackney. My supervisor seemed to be suppressing a giggle at the news which was uncharacteristic for her. I work at a law firm. People don't giggle generally or show any outward signs of humor. It’s seen as a form of weakness.
I often wondered how I ended up as a paralegal. I blame the day when, clueless about my future I went to a Job Center.
The twitchy, acne ridden guy behind the desk who probably wasn't much older than me, went through the usual range of unimaginative options, most of them entailing work as some kind of clerk or other.
I sat in silence because my mother had instructed me to visit the Job Center, probably because my father had wanted me out of the house, and I had no idea why I was there.
After a couple of minutes the silence became embarrassing and the acne ridden one started clearing his throat. I felt myself becoming nervous that he would start squeezing the pustules on his nose and wanted to get out and breathe some non-stale, government subsidized, Job Center air.
"Well," he said finally.
"Well," I replied and overheard a sharply dressed young woman in the next booth talking about being a paralegal.
"Paralegal," I ventured.
"Yes. Good choice," he replied and pushed some forms in my direction. I won't say that settled my career path but as I meandered aimlessly through education it was always in the back of my mind. I filled them in and the rest, as they say, is history.
But that wasn't the end of my career angst. Later in life I started to think more about history. I would ask myself were Alexander the Great alive today would he be a paralegal? What about Julius Caesar? I doubted it very much, although I still have a strange recurring vision of Alexander stuck in a four mile line of traffic on the M-25, trying to barge other vehicles out of his way as if they were chariots, his angry thumb jammed on the mobile phone button to the Cones Hotline.
My boss was called Mrs. Jones. If she had a first name I couldn't imagine anyone ever addressing her by it. She was always rather controlled, sucked in and a bit withered. She was nothing like Mrs. Jones in Rising Damp who perversely I had a soft spot for, her voice aside. The day I went to Hackney Mrs. Jones was bordering on the jovial.
"I need you to take some details from a Mrs. Collins," she informed me. "She's rather old and a little eccentric, but you'll get the measure of her. It’s...well... it's probate. Read the file on your desk first."
The thought of Hackney failed to galvanize me. I had been thinking of Hawaii a lot of late and Hackney seemed like a poor, palm tree bereft substitute, with the similarities running out somewhere after the letter H. Still I boarded a small commuter train and found myself shuttling through stations with names like Hackney Downs and Hackney Wick looking over a world of huddled terraces and gaunt concrete monstrosities that rose over greens of a most sickly hue.
Hackney made no sense to me. There are places where you can live surrounded by crime, squalor and bad schools that are far cheaper to live in, without the feeling that the city has swallowed you up and discarded you.
Clapton meant little to me. My only knowledge of the place was from people who said it was borderline trendy. They were almost always confusing it with Clapham.
I took a cab and walked down a terraced house off Pembury Road. While I had always been dismissive of Hackney I was finding something stimulating in the urban grittiness on the street scene; the faint smell of cat piss, the shuffling hobo and the kind of pubs that looked like you could drink there all day until you slumped off your bar stool onto the floor and a jolly landlord would prop you up half an hour later and exhort you to buy a round for the whole bar. After two years of working at a law firm, there was something mildly attractive about disorder and sticky beer mats.
Mrs. Collins' home fell in line with the shambolic streets around it. The three story terraced house appeared to be grand and rambling from across the street but when you came closer you saw the fissures in the stucco, the paint jumping ship off the railings, the bike rusting away at a subterranean level and one poor geranium withered on the doorstep which only served to highlight the dilapidation even further
Mrs Collins took some time to answer the door. He shook her head a lot and looked confused. She was doing a good impression of being 110 even though she was probably not a day older than 80.
"I'm sorry about your loss, Mrs. Collins," I said, lowering my voice as per the firm training manual, subsection 4 (A) – Clients who have suffered bereavements.
"It's quite a loss sir."
"You were close, I know. Let me see ... you were together 62 years."
Mrs Collins' already scrunched up face contracted further. "Nart that bastard."
"Oh. I see. Well I have some documents..." At this juncture I realized I had been so busy admiring the grubby inner city scape of Hackney I had forgotten to read any of the documents. I had no idea what this probate case was about and resolve to visit the toilet as soon as was polite, to acquaint myself with the paperwork.
"I have tea,” Mrs. Collins said. It was a threat rather than an invitation.
"That sounds fine Mrs. Collins."
She headed to the kitchen and I heard a chorus of twittering as she brushed on a cage near the kitchen.
"What bird is that Mrs. Collins?"
She shot me a malevolent glance which I thought to be strange at the time given the innocuous nature of the question, before vanishing into a kitchen of stale yellow wallpaper that looked like it had been clinging to the walls since the war. There was an unclean and dull clattering noise that made me glad I was not witnessing the tea making process.
Then over a scalding cup of tea in a cracked mug I started going over the files. I hoped to buy some time but for an elderly lady she was a very quick tea maker.
"All that time and you never married. Did you ever consider it?" I asked as she came clattering into the dining room.
"Are you joking me?"
The old bird was a lot tougher than the one in the cage that was clearly a canary on closer inspection.
"I don't want to pry but," I said, the but hanging in the air like a big hook and an invitation to pry. "If you disliked him so much why were you together all that time?"
For a few seconds a lost expression passed over Mrs. Collins' face, as if I had asked her a question that never occurred to her before she snapped back. "He was there."
I felt like pointing out dog mess and chip wrappers on the street were there, but it's not normal practice to take them inside and cohabit with them for more than 60 years.
Then out of nowhere Mrs. Collins started to talk about a vicious argument conducted with her former companion in the most colorful and graphic of terms. The "f.. bastard' wanted to plant crocuses; she said they were a disappointment and insisted on daffodils. They had hardly spoken since. Then there was the stroke and he lost the power of speech. But not the power of glare. He’d sit in that corner, right where I was now, and she knew what was going through his scheming mind.
The papers before me were interesting. The house was dilapidated but it was worth a lot of money and there was a parcel of land in Wimbledon of all places which was worth more money. I assumed the couple's differences had been sorted out in the will if not life until a line in the document jumped out at me. Her watery eyes met my gaze at the same time as the information entered my consciousness like the sting of a north easter on a February day.
"So the estate was left Mrs. Collins to the um. Canary."
There wasn't so much to say once I had reached this pertinent line in the document that I should have read a few hours later.
"Well. Mrs. Collins. Canary's don't live very long. I don't suppose he has a day job in a coal mine?"
By this time any wetness in her eyes had glazed over and given way to an unsettling flintiness. The feeling came over me that the life span of the canary would not be a long one.
Back on the mean little platform at Hackney Wick I reflected on my surreal morning and longed for the train to come to get me out of the borough and back to reality. As it appeared in the distance I noticed a scene nearby. The man was thick set but not excessively so. His hair was glossy black and his hands were moving jerkily through it.
He was squared up to a disheveled looking woman with dirty blond hair, slightly wild and unkempt and a striking looking teenage girl stood between the two. I heard their voices rise and fall above the rush of the incoming train. The woman almost wailed, the man sounded lost in a deeper baritone and the girl gave off the air of referee in a wrestling match.
My train arrived but I strained my neck to watch this micro conflict on an unimportant inner city platform. The man, as if sensing my attention, turned and I had my second shock in the space of an hour. His features were clearly those of my squash partner.
I compare my thirties to a railway station. One with yawning great exists and entrances on both ends. I'm old enough to have lines coming in but lines are also going out, leading to who knows where. It's an apt comparison for me because trains have never been far from my life.
The home where I grew up was an old railway worker's cottage, and although it had modern windows and a conservatory sometimes I would feel the soul of the roughly hewn home, seeping through the trappings of modernity.
At night the express trains would come rattling past and the walls would shudder and it felt as if the terraced house wanted to follow the train down the line. I imagined I'd wake up the next morning to find the cottage had been shunted away down the valley but the view was the same, the trees forming an austere line and the high ridge of the dark moors beyond.
I often wondered if the emptiness of it all was the reason why I sought the city. Walkers came to the high moors in their yellow raincoats in the summer to get away from the Smoke as London was known back then but the hard empty moonscape left me feeling exposed and wanting to surround myself in bustle and disorder.
Perhaps I wanted to get away before the iron in those hills entered my soul. My father was a Yorkshireman and I often thought the thinner oxygen of those altitudes had reduced his blood. I'm not sure why he had a family because his kids always seemed an embarrassment or an inconvenience and you'd catch him looking at you obliquely some days as if he has spied a strange shaped table that didn't belong in the house.
"Well he's bringing his fancy big city ways to Ilkington. Ee'll be out by Christmas. You mark my words," he'd say of a succession of new vicars that the hapless Church of England sent north to convert the heathens.
And sure enough my father and his cronies from the Old Boot would ensure the "soft arsed southerner" had packed his bags shortly after Harvest festival, talking glibly about the delights of Dorset which was a code for a place without big raw boned northern bullies, where little old ladies shook your hand outside the church on a warm spring morning.
When my father spoke of the big city he was speaking of Manchester or Leeds. Of London he seemed to have no perception and the idea of people moving to the capital was akin to forging an existence on one of the less hospitable satellites of Saturn.
My mother existed. I never really knew if she had a personality before she met my father but she certainly didn't have one afterwards. She was there to serve his every whim but at least she could bake fine cakes.
So the railways held a special significance for me. As a child I would sit in the chilly trees and watch the trains below me heading in a blue and yellow blur to Huddersfield and Nottingham and eventually south to London.
My original perception of the capital came from a metal biscuit tin and an engraving of the Great Fire of London. There was a huge cathedral, gaunt and skeletal being consumed by the flames, and the distinctive pinnacles of the Tower, so bijou and innocuous looking for a citadel steeped so much blood. And the people teemed over London Bridge and the houses leaned into each other. It was busy, deadly, exhilarating.
While other kids sniffed solvents, hung out at only disco in town and chased after the only girl in town, Maureen Davies with her curiously wrinkled stockings, I methodically plotted my escape. I hung out in my chilly room for hours at a time reading Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, putting myself in the nicely polished shoes of the old rascal as he walked the festering streets of London.
"I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets, though not so freely as to run myself into apparent danger, except when they dug the great pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it."
Later on I read about Jack the Ripper and the horror of Whitechapel. More densely packed streets and families living eight to a tiny room with a clinical killer in their midst.
While these grisly tales would have put many a stout northern soul off visiting the capital, they spurred me on with the curiosity of a war correspondent intent on visiting the in vogue battle spot of the day which was Beirut when I was a teenager.
I wanted a danger that was more palpable than Mrs. Bowern's poodle being decapitated by an Austin Maxi. I wanted life, however risky and unpredictable it might be.
The railways for me were the way out. When the weekends arrived I would spend money I earned from humping around sacks of flour on a train ticket. Within an hour I'd be in Leeds with its blackened urban spires and tower blocks. I'd hang around for most of the day doing urban things, delighting in the anonymity afforded to me by the city.
I was drawn to the stations of these great cities, arched like vast hothouses, the domain of errant pigeons, their wings sooted up from layers of old grime deposited decades ago by the last of the steam trains.
When I was 15 I made it to Liverpool Lime Street, the venerable station opened in 1836 that's overlooked by the chateau-like former North Western Hotel designed by Alfred Waterhouse. It was converted into student accommodation by the time I managed to see it, and few of the hung over specimens saw wandering around seemed to have any interest in the architecture of their temporary home.
I walked the streets around the station but became more lost every time I turned down another blind alley and the streets became more threatening. Under the rotting concrete edifice of the Catholic cathedral dubbed "Paddy's Wigwam" children with pock marked faces followed me down the street, intent on helping me part with my train fare home.
Their mothers looked on sullenly from door slabs under washing lines of yellow clothes where weeds grew in the poorly strained air. There would be no mercy or respite from my tormentors until I got up the hill where the Anglican cathedral soared to the foggy skies red and austere, its head high above the urban wasteland that was the closest Britain could get to Beirut, although Liverpool’s social mix and tensions made it more akin to Belfast, just a short ferry ride away across the muddy waters of the Irish Sea.
Liverpool shocked me but it failed to divert me from my urban dreams. So it was no surprise when I found myself on another train a year later, clutching a note for an interview and a one way ticket, as the King's Cross station loomed out of the mess of wires and graffiti.
King's Cross with its low rent homes, its con men, spivs and prostitutes, was every bit more dangerous than Liverpool. King’s Cross as a welcome to London resembled an upright finger.
It was just an interview but I wasn't going home. Fortunately the job was so dire, I was offered it. I could imagine my father from afar, wearing his puzzled and put out face on for a few moments before he picked up his cap from the nail in the kitchen and made his way down the Old Boot to discuss his son's disappearance with his friends before diving into the real meat of the cricket scores.
The thoughts of the past flitted in and out like the sun that flooded in and was shut out by the tunnels down the line. Railway dreams like the lines moved in diverse directions, uncertain and suburban, jolting and stopping but always taking me somewhere. I wondered as the identikit homes of Southgate came into view, how London could ever have seemed so exciting from afar. I wondered about familiarity and the way it reduces wonder to an everyday commodity.
I remembered tonight's game of squash was with Paul Moriarty and my interest was piqued briefly because he seemed so different from the usual crowd at the squash club, the Clives and the Derricks with their body shops and insurance brokers and their faux matiness, their gray slip on shoes and their fondness for Tottenham Hotspur.
Not for the first time I wondered what drew Moriarty to the obscure squash club in the park.
Four miles away where the Hackney skyline did its best to obscure the late afternoon sunshine Laura left the fourth floor apartment and walked into the Red Dog cafe.
The crowd looked up and greeted her with the understated approval reserved for hip chicks. She knew there were guys there who wanted to remark on her boots but didn't have the courage, given her reputation for a swift put down.
She knew the rip in her red tights was small enough to be cutting edge but not too obtrusive. Her eyes were darkened with mascara and her lipstick as vibrant as her tights. Just one thing was gnawing away at her air of composure and quiet attitude and it was a large one and the same one as always.
When Robbie had first came round he had been a burning man, burning up and consumed with her mother but it hadn't lasted and she had seen it again and again. It seemed far too familiar - the raised hopes, the dashed dreams; the rise and fall, the departure of passion from the platform of necessity and the scars on her mother's arms.
God knows she had tried to inject realism. The burning men always became singed carcasses. There was soon no fuel left to burn. Couldn't she find a simmering man who boiled away below the surface and never quite went out? Couldn't she find a man called Colin whose mother knit all of his Cardigans for him?
She had winced when Robbie went through the spiel amid that curious foot tapping motion of his. Perhaps Robbie could have done it without mentioning his wife. Told her he was gay; anything but what he ended up saying. Laura had just sat there in the recliner puckering up her "nice one" face, wearing her attitude, even while she felt a sickening sliding sensation.
But now Laura started to wonder if she should be at the Red Dog at all. The last of the afternoon sun projected the railings through the grubby windows of the Red Dog; lines on the tables, power lines across the litter strewn street, a line across her arm - sharp like the incision of a knife. Laura wondered if she should call her mother but she ordered a herbal tea instead.