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London Haunts III

London Haunts III

Istanbul Meze Grill

I’d seen Tom and his leather jacket around for years. He was a nocturnal stylist-photographer-DJ, playing all the best fashion parties as well as a weekly slot at Scotch. Tom was sexy in a sepulchral way, sharp-jawed and impeccably coiffed, with Al Pacino’s Corleone slicked-back hair.

I was thrilled when he asked me to lunch, at ‘this little joint I know near my place’, and then disheartened when the joint turned out to be Istanbul Meze Grill on Camden High Street. On my way there, it struck me that I’d never actually seen him in the daylight before. Would he be as beautiful at 2pm as he was at 2am?

He was, but his skin had the dull pallor I recognised from trashy vampire series; a reminder of the very real importance of vitamin D. I realised that when we partied together we’d barely talked, so I was intrigued to hear his meticulously curated life story, one that he relayed between mouthfuls of kebab:

‘When I was 16, I left home. I hopped trains around California with nothing but my camera and a skateboard. Back then, I really wanted to be a pro skater, but it’s turned out that I’m much better at photography’.

Tom had a grotesque penchant for namedropping. I listened as he regaled me with tales of after-parties with famous people, like he was a society page of a glossy magazine sprung to life. His true métier, though, in life and art alike, was models. Young models. Moodily shot in black and white; hanging off his arm in smoking areas; taking selfies snugly wrapped within his jacket.

‘I guess I’m really good at spotting the hidden beauty in women. Flaws are just so appealing to me – like with you, your face looks like it’s completely symmetrical. But then if you look carefully, your left eye is ever so slightly smaller and droopy.’

He reached over to stroke my sad little eye, and in the process got garlic sauce on the sleeve of his beloved leather jacket, which he then quickly licked off.

He took me back to his flat down the road in Mornington Crescent. I’d often wondered where he lived. I’d imagined it would be somewhere glamorous. It turned out to be a grotty two-bedroom atop a funeral director’s.

The room was bare in the wan light of a March afternoon. Cigarette butts in sticky wine glasses balanced on a dusty pile of TANKs and i-Ds. An ailing palm slouched in the corner. On the kitchen table, there was a bowl containing a single lime, which had begun to reek sweetly. The floor crunched underfoot as we walked through to his bedroom.

His turntable sat altar-like in the centre of the room, with white plastic chairs arranged around it. Seeing me eye it, he enthusiastically offered to give me a preview of a new mix he was working on. He fiddled through the vinyl records placed in a box next to the turntable, but didn’t choose to take one out. Instead he stood up to the turntable, and pressed play.

The music filled the room, but he still faced the turntable. He kept talking over it, saying things like ‘bootleg 80s track, never saw the light of day!’ while turning to me, but he kept his eyes fixed on the turntable. It was difficult to know how I was expected to react.

When the private listening party was finally over, he led me to his bed. He looked naked and vulnerable out of his leather jacket, so much so that I almost wished he’d kept it on. We fucked on grey sheets that reeked of stale ashtray.

I lay in his arms as we watched dirty clouds pass by the window. He looked down at me, smiled in a self-satisfied way and said, ‘I always wondered what that would be like with you. You guard yourself so closely. But sex is ecstatic. You know – ex-stasis. Standing outside yourself, out of time, escaping the ego. It’s just kind of universal?’

My stomach turned. Maybe it was the shish, maybe it was the bullshit, so I smiled at him like I felt I should. He stretched out, stood up and cracked his knuckles. He had to get ready.

I stretched out on his bed as he prepared himself, my head propped up half on a pillow, half on the wall. My phone was out of battery and there was nothing to read nearby as he immersed himself in the mirror. His hair-styling routine was far more complex and arduous than any I’d ever witnessed a girl perform. A four-stage process: blow-dry, comb, set, spray – interspersed with looks of approval as he pursed his lips in front of the glass.

Moral of the story: don’t deify a man, or perhaps do, if you feel that you should. But don’t sleep with him.

Gazelli Art House

My friend Aphrodite was having an art exhibition at Gazelli.

At the time, her work centred on the drag scene in London, painting up-and-coming queens in multicoloured, Schiele-esque forms. The pieces were acutely beautiful and the show had garnered a lot of press. I was happy for her, because she deserved it.

She had painted one self-portrait where she was sitting naked, legs open, drawing attention to her genitalia. I was standing in front of it, transfixed by the brutal display of sexuality, lingering on what was captured before me, when a man in his fifties sidled over and stood right beside me.

He had long grey hair and a voluminous Jerry Garcia beard. Chains hung from his neck. At the end of one, I noticed, was a golden Venus of Willendorf. He had unbuttoned himself far too low. I was aware of his red and busty chest, of the long black hairs curling around his paisley shirt. He stretched out his hand and introduced himself as Dr Love, to which I responded:

‘No, really?’

‘That’s my name darling.’

There wasn’t much to say after that.

Dr Love and I stood together in silence before this totem to female sexual power, and the silence was thick with my own unease. I’d hoped to have a private communion with this piece. Now I had to contend with a predatory hippie.

He asked me what I thought of the piece. I said it was powerful and challenging, but that I was having trouble deciphering some of the body parts. He responded, in what I can only imagine to be characteristic Dr Love fashion:

‘Angel, that’s the clitoris.’

My eyes widened, my saliva clogged above my throat. He leaned close. I became aware of the tang of red wine as he whispered:

‘I could teach you more about the female body than you’ll learn in a lifetime.’

This turned out to be a proposition, a hands-on lesson with Dr Love. I declined his proposal of tuition.

I think I’m getting through life alright without it.

The French House

Isaac and I were standing outside The French House on Greek Street. We were two drinks down, elbowed into the smoking area by the Friday night Soho crowd. We had got on to the topic of conspiracy theories.

‘You haven’t heard about the Mandela effect? Are you joking? Sorry, I just can’t really imagine blindly moving through life not knowing what the fuck was actually going on.’

Back at school, Isaac was the epitome of cool. It’s a cliché, sure, but there we are. Utterly unattainable, in part because he was the year above, but even more because he was elusive. You couldn’t count on him to turn up to the party. And he was hot. Seriously hot.

When a friend of mine slept with him at university, years after we left school, the act sent shockwaves of envy throughout our disparate social circle. When he asked me for a date, aged 24, my inner teenager shrieked with joy.

I was going on a date with Isaac. I’d shivered with something as I prepared myself to meet him. Maybe it was pride. But it was just the two of us as he traversed the wilder extremes of the internet’s conspiracy theories.

‘You know, sometimes I just get trapped in this cycle where I can’t stop thinking about whether reality is real, and I’m like: what’s the point of this whole simulation game we’re playing anyway? Have you seen this film The Truman Show? Have you ever thought that could be you? That none of this is actually real?’ Look at it this way: we are all plugged in. You’re plugged in, my mum’s plugged in, my dad’s plugged in, but I’m really plugged in. There’s nothing we can do about it, you can’t escape it, you can’t do anything about it, and that’s what no one bothers to understand. Right now, we’re just entertainment for, like… these aliens or something. They’re sitting around on another planet, watching us right now on their alien televisions and watching us here, now, in this pub, having these drinks. It’s prime time viewing for them. But, you know, if I was an alien, watching from a billion miles away, I would think you look really peng tonight.’

He rubbed his chest with his hand, as a touch of mania flashed through his huge brown eyes, his skin still taut, that perfect hair dipped down just like it used to be back when he didn’t even know my name.

Oh Isaac, you beautiful, beautiful lunatic. What on earth have you been doing for the past six years?

I tried to steer the conversation in another direction. He seemed to be spiralling back towards talking about how Israel funded 9/11, so I brought up mutual friends. We traded stories about where everyone had ended up.

‘Yeah Angus, smoked too much skunk and now he’s so paranoid, he never leaves his house. He’s logged out of the matrix.’

I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to this small subsection of lost London boys. The world all before them back when they were 17, now living at home with their parents, spending their twenties on YouTube.

We were walking back to Tottenham Court Road, in and out of the weekend crowds. I felt numb, possibly even empty. London had suddenly become sinister. His cynicism was catching.

He took my hand and dramatically pivoted to face me, standing stock-still in the middle of the pavement, outside & Other Stories on Oxford Street. I submitted to a kiss, which, even now, remains the worst of my life.

Most bad kiss stories revolve around an overuse of tongue. This was quite the opposite. His unforthcoming little lips had turned into a wall of stone, chapping up against me, hard yet pathetic.

I wondered if I’d spent my life trying too much. I’d always thought of the art of kissing as a dance of give and take. Surely motion from both parties was central to the act?

When we finally pulled away from one another, I was expecting an appalled look on his face. But he was glinting with pleasure, and was obviously delighted with how everything had gone. This left me even more perplexed. I let him station his hands around me, and stare at me with those brown eyes I had spent non-metaphorical months thinking about:

‘Anyways, that’s my bus coming. Remember to stay in your own awareness – it’s all we’ve got in the end.’

He laughed, and turned, and was then gone.

He wanted to go on another date, but I was still traumatised. I said that we would work better as friends, which he swallowed gracefully.

We don’t speak much anymore, but he occasionally sends me the odd meme about overlords and Armageddon. I just really hope he’s doing okay.

Illustrations by John Broadley.

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