I sit with a book in Arlington Square. I am not alone. Benches around me thrive with people reading, scrolling through their phones. It’s the kind of square where locals or those who walk find themselves when the weather is bright. A place for people with time to kill to kill such time without being bothered. It is not a place to gather, make noise and discuss life’s strange complexities. The place for that is around the corner but we will come to that later.
Just as I am beginning to really climb inside my book, a young man – thirty perhaps, dressed in an orange jacket – takes a seat opposite me. He nods. I nod back. We make small talk. I ask if he’s on a break. He says yes. I tell him he has picked a good day to be sitting outside then return to my book thinking that will be that. He on the other hand has obviously come for a chat and asks what I am reading. It’s a Murakami, I tell him, showing him the cover. He says he enjoys Murakami but prefers his novels to short stories. I nod and tell him I like both. He says so does he. I no longer trust him after this and politely leave.
I am early but Naomi doesn’t mind. She invites me into the big old Georgian terrace she shares with six other people. We sit in the well-kept lounge where she rustles me up a cocktail from a machine one of her housemates has bought. It is 2 p.m. and the rest of the house are out working. A minute or so later an old fashioned is planted into my hand which isn’t really an old fashioned as it contains 100% whisky and nothing else. I drink up slowly and remark what a generous measure I’ve been given. I’ve been desperate to tell her about something that happened to me the previous evening. As in, the moment it happened there was only Naomi in the whole world I knew I wanted to tell. I wait for her to return with a cocktail so cloudy it could be apple juice and begin my story.
So, I’m a good way into my shift when I notice this guy. I’d been warned on arrival. Still, I must have stared at his face for an hour, possibly more. It was the only part of him that wasn’t smashed to pieces. You wouldn’t have believed it, Nome. His torso draining the last clots of blood a few feet away but his face alone, almost holy, facing the sky like an oracle. I know what you’re thinking. What was I doing hanging about? It’s strange but I couldn’t help it. Just sat there I did. Gawking at the puffy eyes. Cheeks wilting slowly filling out. They do that if you really look up close. First time I saw it I was twenty-two. Third shift in. The moment I realised my student years were behind me.
He’d a tattoo on his bicep: Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. I liked that. It’s not often you meet another Zappa fan. Especially in my line of work. Made me think we’d have got along. Figured he may have been a creative soul battling it, rejected by a label or publisher for the nine thousandth time but who knows. All I know is whatever he was battling took him down in the end.
I really was there a while. Just sitting, watching. I wondered if he had a family. You can’t help but wonder about a person when they’re all broken up in front of you. I hoped not. For the sake of all involved. Although he probably has parents or siblings or cousins or friends. And they’ll all say the same things. How did we not know? Why didn’t he say anything? Like it’s his fault life has led him to the chasms of the Northern Line.
Anyway, I couldn’t stay all morning. It was three a.m. and we knocked off in an hour shortly before the tracks became live again. Kwame returned from the tunnel and helped me scoop the remains onto the platform. That’s always the worst part. We struggled with one of the legs and Kwame does this sort of thing more than me so he’s kind of an expert. Imagine lifting ninety centimetres of slodge from the ground. But we managed it and kept it somewhat in shape. Then they took what was left of him to the morgue.
From 1854 until 1941 there used to be a railway which carried dead bodies from Waterloo to a cemetery near Woking. It was cancelled during the Blitz after a bomb shattered the line – there were also many tales of hauntings and strange goings-on – but I’m telling you, Kwame and I could do with a train like that. You bet. Not to mention the hundreds of others doing similar work to us. We wouldn’t mind the ghosts if it meant we didn’t have to scoop up their bodies.
It’s strange, if people knew how many leap to their deaths every week they wouldn’t believe it. There’d be a movement. Pastoral care at every station. Most people think it’s a few a year but I’ve seen four since Thursday. Then they complain if a thing like that ever holds up their journey, calling the deceased selfish or beyond help. It’s an epidemic I’m telling you and no one even talks about it.
Around this time I lose my track of thought and remember to ask Naomi how her evening was.
It was okay, she says, we lost a lovely kind grandma who was in a lot of pain but I don’t really want to talk about it. Can’t we just drink and talk about something uplifting for once?
I respect her wishes. I pour us wine from the kitchen and order some noodles while Naomi switches on the tele.
I let her choose. We watch some MasterChef, a documentary with David Attenborough, then fall asleep on the sofa and wake around eight p.m. I’m pretty sure her housemates think we’re a couple but we tried that once and it didn’t work. At all.
I hug her goodbye and start on back to mine. It’s not a long walk. I pass the streets where blueberries have been splattered on the pavements. The canal where a houseboat hums out Hendrix while those living there talk about a wedding and sit sharing houmous from a tub.
It’s still light so I decide to circle back and read a few more pages in the square. It’s only five minutes along the canal then a short minute through some fancy council flats selling for six hundred thousand a pop.
I take a seat on my favourite bench. Soon after I am greeted by the man from earlier. Still in his orange jacket he again settles down opposite. Another break? I ask. He nods and asks what I do for a career that allows me to spend so much time reading books in squares. I’m an engineer for the London Underground, I tell him, working nights, although tonight is my night off. We talk about how these benches are the best positions in the park then he asks what kind of things I work on. I tell him I help to structure tunnels and rail lines, am involved in the new Kennington Loop and also help to clean up bodies. That last part sounds a tough gig, he replies. You get used to it, I say. I reckon it’s a good way to go, he continues, quick, painless; a sudden collision then lights out. I tell him I wouldn’t recommend it.
Just then his phone buzzes and he tells me he has to pick up an order of Korean food from somewhere in Dalston. Same time tomorrow? he asks. Possibly, I reply, though I don’t think I will return tomorrow as I like to read in peace.
I’ve twenty-three hours until the start of my next shift. Lots of time to walk around or read but I’m still pretty tired. It’s nice to watch the city though, from sunny and scudding to starlit, sleepy and old. Maybe one day I’ll write about it. That’s what I’d like to do if I really had the time to concentrate on it. I’d like to write about the city and the people who live here.
Sam Roberts is a writer living in London with his girlfriend and his dog.
This is Sam’s first publication.
Social Media Handle: @SamRoberts1991
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