Charlotte street, p.1
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       Charlotte Street, p.1

           Danny Wallace
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Charlotte Street


  CHARLOTTE

  STREET

  DANNY

  WALLACE

  For Elliot

  There’s nothin’ like the humdrum

  Of life and love in London

  Chasin’ girls out of the sticks

  Changing worlds with twelve quick clicks

  Girl in a Photo, The Kicks

  ‘As good things go … she went.’

  Hovis Presley

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Epigraph

  BEFORE

  ONE: Or ‘(She) Got Me Bad’

  TWO: Or ‘Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid’

  THREE: Or ‘The Woman Comes and Goes’

  FOUR: Or ‘London, Luck and Love’

  FIVE: Or ‘Everywhere I Look’

  SIX: Or ‘The Sky Is Falling’

  SEVEN: Or ‘A Lot of Changes Coming’

  EIGHT: Or ‘Getaway Car’

  NINE: Or ‘Next Step’

  TEN: Or ‘She’s Pretty’

  ELEVEN: Or ‘Lazyman’

  TWELVE: Or ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her’

  THIRTEEN: Or ‘Who Said The World Was Fair?’

  FOURTEEN: Or ‘Southeast City Window’

  FIFTEEN: Or ‘Man on a Mission’

  SIXTEEN: Or ‘Goodnight & Goodmorning’

  SEVENTEEN: Or ‘And That’s What Hurts’

  EIGHTEEN: Or ‘You Burn Me Up, I’m a Cigarette’

  NINETEEN: Or ‘At Tension’

  TWENTY: Or ‘Cold, Dark and Yesterday’

  TWENTY-ONE: Or ‘Go Solo’

  TWENTY-TWO: Or ‘Adult Education’

  TWENTY-THREE: Or ‘Do What You Want, Be What You Are’

  TWENTY-FOUR: Or ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’

  TWENTY-FIVE: Or ‘Sometimes a Mind Changes’

  TWENTY-SIX: Or ‘Make You Stay’

  TWENTY-SEVEN: Or ‘Halfway There’

  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  About the Author

  Also by Danny Wallace

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  BEFORE

  It happened on a Tuesday.

  I suppose the noise it would make in a film would be boom, but there was no boom with this.

  No boom, no bang, no tap, crack or snap.

  Just a flash of glass, a moment in flight, a flicker of shooting star through a history lesson, and all the colder for it.

  Things like this aren’t supposed to happen on Tuesdays. It’s history, then art; it’s not this.

  I shivered the second I saw him, but the strange thing is that I also noticed the weather; this weak, grey veil of rain beyond the chipped old railings, beyond the thin scarred trees.

  It was like the moment in a dream where you see something happening, something bad, something that should never be, and your bones become heavy and your feet hard to raise, as whatever warning you try and call out through the fog of it all becomes too slurred and too blurred to be useful.

  It would have been better, had it been a dream.

  What would you call him? A gunman? Seems dramatic, especially this early in the story, but a gunman he was. There, on the other side of the street, maybe nine storeys up, pleased with his first shot, now cocking the rifle and snapping it back, reloading, finding his aim.

  Gunman will do.

  ‘Right. Up. Let’s go.’

  Calm. Short words. Quickly.

  ‘Now, please.’

  I’m suddenly in the middle of the room. It feels like I can do most good here but really, what can I do? I turn and scan the flats again, find him.

  He’s laughing. His mate is, too.

  ‘What? Where to?’ said someone, maybe Jaideep, or maybe the one with the hair whose name I could never remember. You know the one – the one the teachers call Superfly. Instinctively I stood in front of him, his paid protector, like he’d made himself a target just by asking sir a question.

  ‘Hall,’ was the best I could manage, the back of my neck expecting attack, my faked calm fighting my fight or flight. ‘Up.’

  ‘Hey …’ said someone else. ‘Hey …’, and I looked at them, and right across their face was the terror I felt, as they struggled to understand what they were seeing, what it meant.

  ‘Okay, now please, Anna. Please.’

  ‘Sir …’

  The waver in the voice, the fear; it would spread, and fast.

  ‘Out the DOOR.’

  They moved, shocked, and quickly now, as quick as the news spread through the school. As quick as the police arrived, with their own guns, their cars and their dogs, their helmets and shields. The kids found their confidence again then, pressed up against windows, peeping through buckled Venetians, as eight or ten armed coppers made a heavy path up the stairwell of Alma Rose House while the others, tense and furrow-browed, stared the place out, willing our shooter to try something.

  The kids applauded as they dragged him out. Applause was the first sign it was over. They applauded the vans, shouted jokes at the coppers and cooed at the chopper … but the kids hadn’t seen what I’d seen.

  I was last out of 3Gc, I’d tell Sarah, later. She’d stopped at the offie for an eight-pack of Stella and a bottle of Rioja – the only medicine she had a licence to give – but she’d rushed home to be with me, her arm on mine, her head against my shoulder. The kids had been safe, I told her, and I’d stayed with them while Anna Lincoln and Ben Powell ran to Mrs Abercrombie’s office to get help, though Ranjit had already dialled 999 by then, and probably posted on Twitter too.

  But I’d stayed in that room just a second or two longer, just to work out whether this could be real, whether he could actually be doing what he was doing, whether I was making a mistake raising this alarm.

  And that’s when he’d laughed again. And taken aim again.

  I’d never felt more alone. Never more aware of myself. What I was, what I wasn’t, what I wanted.

  And another glimpse of shooting star flit its path inches from my face, to bounce against a wall behind and scutter and scuttle and skip on the floor.

  And that, doctor, is when the damage was done.

  ONE

  Or ‘(She) Got Me Bad’

  I wonder if we should start with the introductions.

  I know who you are. You’re the person reading this. For whatever reason, and in whatever place, that’s you, and soon we’ll be friends, and you’ll never ever convince me otherwise.

  But me?

  I’m Jason Priestley.

  And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Goodness! Are you the same Jason Priestley, born in Canada in 1969, famous for his portrayal of Brandon Walsh, the moral centre of the hit American television series Beverly Hills 90210?

  And the surprising answer to your very sensible question is no. No, I’m not. I’m the other one. I’m the thirty-two-year-old Jason Priestley who lives on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn’t. The Jason Priestley who gave up his job as a deputy head of department in a bad North London school to chase a dream of being a journalist after his girlfriend left him but who’s ended up single and going to cheap restaurants and awful films so’s he can write about them in that free newspaper they give you on the tube which you take but don’t read.

  Yeah. That Jason Priestley.

  I’m also the Jason Priestley with a problem.

  You see, just in front of me – right here, on this table, just in front of me – is a small plastic box. A small plastic box I’ve come to regard as a small plastic box that could change things. Or, at least, make them different.

  And right now, I’d take different.

  I don’t know wha
t’s in this small plastic box, and I don’t know if I ever will. That’s the problem. I could know; I could have it open within the hour, and I could pore over its contents, and I could know once and for all whether there was any … hope in there.

  But if I do, and it turns out there is hope in there, what if that’s all it is? Just a bit of hope? And what if that hope turns to nothing?

  Because the one thing I hate about hope – the one thing I despise about it, that no one ever seems to admit about it – is that suddenly having hope is the easiest route to sudden hopelessness there is.

  And yet that hope is already within me. Somehow, without my inviting it in or expecting it in any way, it’s there, and based on what? Nothing. Nothing apart from the glance she gave me and the fleeting glimpse I got of … something.

  I’d been standing on the corner of Charlotte Street when it happened.

  It was maybe six o’clock, and a girl – because yeah, you and I both knew there was going to be a girl; there had to be a girl; there’s always a girl – was struggling with the door of the black cab and the packages in her hands. She had a blue coat and nice shoes, and white bags with names I’d never seen before on them, and boxes, and even, I think, a cactus poking out the top of a Heal’s bag.

  I was ready to walk past, because that’s what you do in London, and to be honest, I nearly did … but then she nearly dropped the cactus. And the other packages all shifted about, and she had to stoop to keep them all up, and for a moment there was something sweet and small and helpless about her.

  And then she uttered a few choice words I won’t tell you here in case your nan comes round and finds this page.

  I stifled a smile, and then looked at the cabbie, but he was doing nothing, just listening to TalkSport and smoking, and so – and I don’t know why, because like I say, this is London – I asked if I could help.

  And she smiled at me. This incredible smile. And suddenly I felt all manly and confident, like a handyman who knows just which nail to buy, and now I’m holding her packages and some of her bags, and she’s shovelling new ones that seem to have appeared from nowhere into the cab, and she’s saying, ‘Thank you, this is so kind of you,’ and then there’s that moment. The glance, the fleeting glimpse of that something I mentioned. And it felt like a beginning. But the cabbie was impatient and the night air cold, and I suppose we were just too British to say anything else and then it was, ‘Thanks,’ and that smile again.

  She closed the door, and I watched the cab move off, tail lights fading into the city, hope trailing and clattering on the ground behind it.

  And then – just as the moment seemed over – I looked down.

  I had something in my hands.

  A small plastic box.

  I read the words on the front.

  Single Use 35mm Disposable Camera.

  I wanted to shout at the cab – hold the camera up and make sure she knew she’d left something behind. And for a second I was filled with ideas – maybe when she came running back, I’d suggest a coffee, and then agree when she said what she really needed was a huge glass of wine, and then we’d get a bottle, because it made better financial sense to get a bottle, and then we’d agree we shouldn’t be eating on empty stomachs, and then we’d jack in our jobs and buy a boat and start making cheese in the country.

  But nothing happened.

  No screech of car tyre, no pause then crunch of gears, no reverse lights, no running, smiling girl in nice shoes and a blue coat.

  Just a new taxi stopping, so a fat man could get out at a cashpoint.

  You see what I mean about hope?

  ‘Now, before we go any further whatsoever,’ said Dev, holding up the cartridge and tapping it very gently with his finger. ‘Let’s talk about the name. “Altered Beast”.’

  I was staring at Dev in what I like to imagine was quite a blank manner. It didn’t matter. In all the years I’ve known him I doubt he’s seen many looks from me, other than my blank one. He probably thinks I’ve looked like this since university.

  ‘Now, it conjures up not only mysticism, of course, but also intrigue, meshing as it does both Roman culture and Greek mythology.’

  I turned and looked at Pawel, who seemed mildly traumatised.

  ‘Now, the interesting thing about the sound effects—’ said Dev, and he pressed a button on his keyring and out came a tinny, distorted noise that sounded as if it might be trying to say, ‘Wise Fwom Your Gwaaave!’.

  I put my hand up.

  ‘Yes, Jase, you’ve got a question?’

  ‘Why’ve you got that noise on your keyring?’

  Dev sighed, and made quite a show of it. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Jason, but I’m trying to tell Pawel here about the early development of Sega Mega Drive games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I’m sorry we’re not covering your personal passion of the work of American musical duo Hall & Oates, but that’s not why Pawel is here, is it?’

  Pawel just smiled.

  Pawel does a lot of smiling when he visits the shop. It’s usually to collect money Dev owes him for his lunchtime snacks. I sometimes watch his face as he wanders around the floor, taking in ancient, faded posters of Sonic 2 or Out Run, picking up chipped carts or battered copies of old magazines, flicking through the reviews of long-dead platformers or shoot-em-ups that look like they were drawn by toddlers now. Dev let him borrow a Master System and a copy of Shinobi the other day. Turns out you didn’t really get many Master Systems in mid-80s Eastern Europe, and even less ninjas. We’re not going to let him borrow the Xbox, because Dev says his eyes might explode.

  ‘Anyway,’ said Dev. ‘The name of this very shop – Power Up! – owes its existence to—’

  And I start to realise what Dev’s doing. He’s trying to bore Pawel out of here. Dominate the conversation. Bully him into leaving, the way men with useless knowledge often do. Throw in phrases like, ‘Oh, didn’t you know that?’, or, ‘Of course, you’ll already be aware …’ in order to patronise and thwart and win.

  He can’t have enough cash on him for lunch.

  ‘How much does he owe you, Pawel?’ I asked, fishing for a fiver in my pocket.

  Dev shot me a smile.

  I love London.

  I love everything about it. I love its palaces and its museums and its galleries, sure. But also, I love its filth, and damp, and stink. Okay, well, I don’t mean love, exactly. But I don’t mind it. Not any more. Not now I’m used to it. You don’t mind anything once you’re used to it. Not the graffiti you find on your door the week after you painted over it, or the chicken bones and cider cans you have to move before you can sit down for your damp and muddy picnic. Not the everchanging fast food joints – AbraKebabra to Pizza the Action to Really Fried Chicken – and all on a high street that despite its three new names a week never seems to look any different. Its tawdriness can be comforting, its wilfulness inspiring. It’s the London I see every day. I mean, tourists: they see the Dorchester. They see Harrods, and they see men in bearskins and Carnaby Street. They very rarely see the Happy Shopper on the Mile End Road, or a drab Peckham disco. They head for Buckingham Palace, and see waving above it the red, white and blue, while the rest of us order dansak from the Tandoori Palace, and see Simply Red, White Lightning, and Duncan from Blue.

  But we should be proud of that, too.

  Or, at least, get used to it.

  You could find a little bit of Poland on one end of the Caledonian Road these days, the way you could find Portugal in Stockwell, or Turkey all through Haringey. Since the shops came, Dev has used his lunchtimes to explore an entirely new culture. He was like that at university when he met a Bolivian girl at Leicester’s number one nightclub, Boomboom. I was studying English, and for a month or so, Dev was studying Bolivian. Each night he’d dial-up Internet and wait ten minutes for a single page to load, before printing it off and committing stock Spanish phrases to memory, hoping once again to bump into her, but never, ever managing it.

  ‘Fate!’ he’d say.
‘Ah, fate.’

  Now it was all about Poland. He gorges himself on Z szynka cheese, proclaiming it to be the finest cheese he’s ever tasted, ignoring the fact it’s processed and in little plastic packets and tastes exactly like Dairylea. He buys Krokiety and Krupnik and more cheese, with bright pink synthetic ham pebbledashed across each bland jaundiced slab. Once he bought a beetroot, but he didn’t eat it. Plus, if it’s the end of the day he’ll make sure whatever customer happens to still be there sees him with a couple of Paczki and a goblet of Jezynowka. And once he’s made it obvious enough and they’ve asked what he on earth he’s got in his hands, he’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re brilliant. Haven’t you ever had Paczki?’, and then look all international and pleased with himself for a bit.

  But he’s not doing it to show off. Not really. He’s got a good heart, and I think he thinks he’s being welcoming and informative. It’s still the laziest form of tourism there is, though. No one else I know simply sits there, playing videogames, and waiting for the countries to come to him, with each new wave of what he likes to call the ‘Newbies’. He wants to see the world, he’ll tell you – but he prefers to see it all from the window of his shop.

  Men come from everywhere to shop here. Men trying to recapture their youth, or complete a collection, or find that one game they used to be brilliant at. There’s new stuff, sure – but that’s just to survive. That’s not why people come. And when they do, sometimes they get the Power Up! reference. After that, it’s only a matter of moments before Dev mentions Makoto Uchida, and that’s usually enough to establish his superiority and scare them off, maybe having bought a £2 copy of Decap Attack or Mr Nutz, but probably not.

  Dev sells next to nothing, but next to nothing seems to be just enough. His dad owns a few restaurants on Brick Lane and keeps the basics paid, and what little extra there is keeps Dev in ham-flecked Szazinska, at any rate. Plus he’s been good to me, so I shouldn’t judge him. I lost a girlfriend and a flat but gained a flatmate and virtually no rent in return for a few afternoon shifts and a weekly supply of Krokiety.

 

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