Friday, January 3

Crowds

I

WE GOT OFF the tube and everyone walked very slowly through the gates. There were the thin fingers of a crowd walking in from every street and joining together. Very little was said; what was said was said in hushed voices. We, all of us, entered the graveyard. The West London day was grey and upon the graves was grey and a fine mist; the grass uncut. I was very excited. In the distance, over the houses, was the stadium, erect and mighty; quietude; flecks of blue on everyone. I was walking fast, but had to linger for my friends. The crowd went around the mausoleum and out into the street on the other side, where a larger mass was flowing in a thick river that rushed past policemen on horseback, coaches, men asking for tickets, men selling tickets, men selling scarves and cooking burgers. This was the road remembered from youth, when, now as then, I walked the length, aiming for the west stand. All the smells of tobacco and frying fat greeted me, and the scattered horse-scat and scattered beer cups. Some drunkards laughed at their friend as a copper wrestled his drink off him and proceeded to empty it into the gutter; they hollered on. There were streams coming from here and from there.
We got into the ground and took stock, ordering beers. All around us men gathered in small groups over their plastic cups like lamps and observed the televisions screens that told everyone the other football scores; laughter and curses ebbed on. As the game was about to start, we went up and found our seats and around us splayed the forty-one thousand love affairs.
Roars.
For kick-off, we cheered.
A large flag bubbled across the north stand.
Everyone arose for the first touch. The chants began.
We suffered an early goal; the away-fans were electric alive, and we wilted a trifle. Then we scored and everyone threw up their arms and fell over each other. The away-end quieted. The hoarsening cries of a single man punched the air and then his choir packed in the retort. The songs made me laugh; all through me was thunder human thunder and the metal ricocheted and is this where we come to live? and slowly one chant makes way for another.
That was where I sat as a child; me, my father, my brother upon long ridges of cold concrete that chilled our marrow; newspapers lain down and cigarette smoke and the stench of cheap pies and sausages.
Fifteen years ago.
After the victory, everyone was back out in the streets, moving in one direction. Away-fans were guarded by police into their coaches; fights were started and finished; there was litter everywhere. My friends and I walked for miles to find a tube station that was open while all around us the crowd disappeared down this road and that. Little twinkles were all that was left of Christmas and outside the caf├ęs sat tourists with steaming espressos. It was a good time. We made jokes down the way. We laughed. At Hyde Park Corner we got on the tube and the farther it went the more of us disappeared until it was just I, without the crowd.



II

ANOTHER CROWD, AND this one with a different gait. The District Line would not normally, at that time on a Wednesday night, be so full. Lisa was with me, excited, wearing dark lipstick. Both of us held small bottles of wine. Shot to bits, I opened mine and got going. Other young people clambered aboard in varying degrees of drunkenness, holding the door open for friends, kissing lovers, passing around bottles. At Mansion House, Lisa and I alighted into quiet ghostland where only two coppers stood and a couple dawdled as though they had nowhere else to go; yet above us, on the wet streets and their fluorescent puddles, the crowd once again gathered from street and from street from street. One mass without a rehearsed hymn. Bottles were smashed upon the floor. Children’s hands were held onto tightly. The throng moved. (Is this I, asks the throng, and I answer that it is we the throng and,) between the buildings, I see the river parted by Southwark bridge and the diamond headlights of parked cars. All of us scrape between the parked cars. Lisa is at my elbow and I push on.
‘I can’t believe it’s so fuckin busy.’
We found a spot, looking West to where the money is. Both of us stared between the shoulders of a Londoner and a man from Atlanta, GA, USA. Lisa talked to a family next to her, them mentioning how rude Londoners were. ‘If you come here, you can see it,’ she said to one of the children—‘Remember, you don’t want to look down, you want to look up!’ A bus pulled alongside us and somehow it was intruded upon by a horde that steamed up its windows and wiped portholes into the condensation.
We drank our wine and rolled cigarettes underneath our chins. There was no countdown, just a miniature hush and then the fireworks way off in the distance and behind rooftops, almost invisible but for the tops of their exploding blonde hairstyles. People cooed and laughed—because, after all, wasn’t it ridiculous that, stood there in the rain, none of us could see?—and everyone had their new year’s kiss. Weed was in the air. More drunkards passed, singing songs. I thought of my family and how many miles away they were and this new thing at my elbow like the winter solstice.
I thought of leaping into the Thames.
We could hardly move off the bridge. I kept checking and she was still there, all Bambi eyes and deer wrists. A man climbed out of his parked car up onto the roof and shouted—‘Happy new year, fuckers!’ and many laughed, and many more still looked for their friends and many toasted over and over, kissing cheeks like kissing families.
Mansion House was bursting, so we carried on down the road, parallel to the river, travelling east. Gurning-eyed test tubes were gurgling at the side of the pavement, wishing everyone a happy new year and with no memory to allocate to the moment.
‘Everyone’s off their tits.’ says she.
We kept moving in that direction, without the crowd, alone but for the rain and expensive taxis. When we got on the tube she clutched me tightly and I was happy. At Liverpool Street a group of kids walked along the platform shouting football chants. I chuckled with the man next to me, who was all dressed up, with his gazing girlfriend. At Mile End the crowd was fractured once more and I pointed out to Lisa the dim lights of our station in the distance, down the black tunnel.

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