There is an ash cloud in the sky, says the paper. The man hands it to me in Stratford Station. It informs me in letters taking up the best part of the front page: VOLCANIC ASH FROM ICELAND SHUTS ALL AIRPORTS LEAVING ONE MILLION AFFECTED. Beside it is a picture of the Eyjafjallajökull, or maybe some other volcano they found on Google Images and forgot to fact-check. It is black and white and crimson, and above it hovers a malevolent tower of smoke.
I am on my way to a Ryanair flight to Italy. I turn around and walk back under the shadow of the dozens of cranes building future Olympic sites, along piles of cement sacks like trenches, through yawning rows of curtained bow windows, still and silent and unlit, to my room in Vicarage Road. I spend the rest of the evening thinking that the world is finally ending, and that I won’t have the chance to say goodbye to the people who really matter to me. Except for that, I think, it’s just as well. I can’t be arsed to roam the earth forever. Then, I fall asleep.
A thumping sound through the thin walls of my room wakes me. It’s the ceiling caving in; it’s the ambulance, it’s the civil guard.
It’s the postman knocking on the door. He is delivering a bank statement.
I sit in bed, which is the only space in the room I can sit, and look online for updates on the world situation. To be sure, the sunset yesterday was the same as any other April sunset this year, navy with a touch of chrome yellow; the dawn this morning, which I’ve personally inspected, was an even less remarkable peach.
Everything seems to be fine. In fact, it appears that in terms of global warming, the 10 million cubic meters of glass-rich volcanic dust from Iceland presently floating through the air are nothing when compared to the amount of CO2 produced by the planes that are grounded because of it. I am ashamed of my overreaction, and of my cheap ticket. I did not really want to go back anyway, not even to visit, but sometimes this city makes me fold my arms in fatigue. However, there are a couple of things that can cheer me up anytime, and that I’m able to afford.
After a few months of solid friendship, confused semi-romantic exchanges, and questionable activism, Jess and I have settled into a comfortable pattern of spending lots of time together for no particular reason. Of course we like each other’s company, but there is another thing I seem to share with the people I bond with these days: we all think home is a four-letter word.
I ring Jess, and tell her to come down. Meanwhile, I drink a cup of tea and get dressed, so that when she gets to Stratford we can go to the chippy. Because, I’ve discovered, what I really want when I’m feeling down is something that London holds aplenty and is generous with: golden, greasy fried chicken.
When I first walked through the blue door of the chippy a couple of months ago, I must not have made the best of impressions. Coming from years of skip jumping and communal meals meant I was finding London’s widespread lack of communication between flatmates expensive and inefficient. I was determined I could bring some of the solutions I had from elsewhere with me; in Denmark, we had a loose agreement with our local supermarket, and they left bruised and unsellable veg neatly stacked in a box at the back for us to retrieve. Here, I had already made friends with Majid, a warm, often slightly tipsy man in his forties who owned the pound shop next door, so he occasionally knocked a pound off my bill and let me pet his kitten Whisky every day.
I walked on the black and white chequered tiles to the formica counter and approached the man behind it with what I thought of as an extra dose of charm one evening at closing time, my Icelandic sweater hanging on me like a potato sack.
“Hello,” he said from behind the counter. He had a well-kept grey beard, swarthy skin, arresting green eyes, and was about my father’s age. “Yes?”
“Hi. I live down the street. I was wondering if you have any food you’re throwing away.”
A long moment of silence passed between us.
“I was wondering,” I said, “if you have any food you, you know, won’t be selling,” I started to stutter, “what with it being closing time and all.”
Another long pause.
“No,” he said, looking at me as if I had suddenly grown horns.
“Ah,” I managed to reply, suddenly perspiring, “in that case, could I please have a piece of chicken, please.”
“Yes. Sorry.” I handed him the coin and looked away. I had made some kind of massive cultural misstep, and probably offended him. There went all my hippy plans for good relations with the neighbours.
“Here you go.” He handed me a big box. I opened the box to squeeze some mayo into the corner.
Inside the box were three pieces of chicken, breast and thigh, and six wings, all perfectly coated in crunchy breadcrumbs, smelling to high heaven of re-fried vegetable oil.
“Excuse me,” I said. “There must be a mistake. I think you’ve given me someone else’s… Oh.”
The shop was empty. He kept looking at me, his lips an impassable straight line.
“Well. Thank you, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“Vijay. You live down the street?”
“Yes. On Vicarage Road.”
“But you’re not from here.”
“I’m from Italy. Are you from here?”
“I’m from Kashmir. You know Kashmir?”
“I know of it,” I said, another ignorant European.
“Very beautiful. Very complicated situation,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
Vijay started to tell me.
I sat down and ate my chicken, then hung out for another half hour.
This time, I am prepared for the banging on the door.
“Hey, buddy.” Jess and I greet and hug. Her straightforward, American-inflected Irish English is a welcome distraction from the intricate reservedness of a lot of the Brits I meet. With Jess, you always know where you stand. In fact, there is no chance in hell she is not going to let you know. She also has a healthy interest in radical politics, history, and factoids. “What are you reading?” she asks.
“Marco Polo stuff,” I tell her. “About how in the times of Marco Polo, a trip would last for years and years, right? You would leave the country a kid and come back a young man. You would fucking amble through the desert for ages. On a camel’s back.”
“But then they invented machines that could make us fly,” she says.
I stop in my tracks; my head is spinning. I am writing a short story, we are both characters in it, and in the new section I wrote yesterday, we have had exactly this exchange. Should I tell her?
“Yes,” I say.
“How about we go to the chippy, then,” I tell her.
Alright. We get out of the house, walk at the pace of residents and weed dealers, pass the usual men hanging in front of a pile of tyres at the local car shop. The chippy is just around the corner; when we get there, Vijay is sitting in the kitchen, on the phone with the plumber.
“I am not a robot, you know,” I hear him say. “I am in the shop all day. I am very, very busy.”
He turns his head and winks at me. The shop is deserted, and he is leisurely eating lunch. I smile and nod.
“Hello,” Jess and I greet him when he’s done.
“Hi,” he says, deadpan as ever, “How are you doing?”
“Pretty well, pretty well. Just hanging out with my friend Jess here, you know. You?”
“Good,” says Vijay. “Bit slow, but good.”
Jess puts her wallet on the counter, then takes a few steps back. She is staring intently at the backlit menu overhead, her nose firmly raised in the air, though she is a vegetarian and will have no option but to get chips. Her attention is fully diverted from the wallet. Vijay and I look at each other.
This is an unrepeatable opportunity.
I position myself between Jess and the wallet, seize it, and sneakily pass it to Vijay, who hides it behind the counter. Then, I turn to Jess, an ear-splitting grin on my face, and ask her: “Have you decided?”
“Ah. Yeah. I think I’ll have some chips. Can I have some chips, please?”
“No problem. And you?”
“One piece of chicken, please,” I smile.
“One pound eighty.”
I give Vijay a pound coin and turn to Jess. She is patting her pockets. Increasingly baffled, she looks around.
“You haven’t seen my wallet, have you?” she asked.
“No,” I say.
“Maybe I left it in the house?”
“You had it with you,” I tell her. She nervously re-examines her pockets, the counter.
“Excuse me,” she says to Vijay, “you haven’t seen my wallet, have you?”
Vijay dishes out for her a long pause and an ice-cold stare.
“Mate,” he says, “are you implying something?”
Jess’s strong eyebrows shoot a mile up her forehead.
“No!” she says. “Not at all! I mean, I was only… I thought maybe…”
“I think maybe you want to say something to me.”
“I don’t, I really…”
“Are you being racist?”
Jess’s very white face turns purple. She opens her mouth and brings up her palms, wordlessly begging for mercy. Then, from the abyss of guilt she has been plunged into, she somehow manages to notice that I am starting to crack up. Even Vijay is smiling a little. I burst out laughing.
“Oh, my god. Oh, shit. Nice.” She dries her face with the back of her hand, as Vijay hands her the wallet.
“I was gonna wait a little bit longer, but I thought you were gonna have a heart attack,” I tell her, tears poking at the corners of my eyes.
“Well played,” says Jess, who appreciates a good prank, but is also visibly lightheaded.
“Your chicken and chips.” The shadow of a smile still lingers on Vijay’s face as he hands me the usual huge box.
“Thanks.” We say goodbye and head out. From the pound shop next door, Majid’s kitten slips onto the street to rub against my legs.
“Whisky,” I stroke him, “You can’t have any of my chicken. It’s not good for you. Now go back inside, it’s past your bedtime.”
The night is falling. The foxes will come out to fight their ancestral war against the cats, search for treats in the garbage, reclaim the city as theirs; the reflectors at the Pudding Mill Lane construction site will shoot cones of light through the dark, antennas raised to the sky; the boroughs will sleep under a linen of orange. I don’t care about the ash cloud anymore. In fact, I think it’s a ploy.
I sink my teeth into the chicken. It’s everything I want it to be.
I think maybe London wants me here.
I haven’t felt this good in months.
It’s been three years since I lived in Stratford. I have a new house, a new job, new friends. I don’t laugh as much as I used to, but I’ve wormed my way in. I don’t write as much as I used to, but at least I pay the bills. I put my head down; I worked hard; I played it right. Of course things change. Jess is gone. Many more of my old friends are gone. I haven’t been to Vicarage Road for a long time; today, I’m going on a pilgrimage. I need to remember. My memories are going grey.
Getting out of Stratford station has become an experience I dread. I am mired in a multitude of stressed-out people, shooting in all directions; preachers shout in my face that Jesus is going to save me, whether I like it or not; and the new Westfield shopping centre dominates, perched atop of its huge staircase, its sheer size filling the air and stealing the light. I dive into the crowd and emerge on the other side unscathed and a bit frazzled. Walking to my old house only takes ten minutes. A low-pressure front is stifling the atmosphere; I feel sweaty and irritable, and the vibe on Vicarage Road is gloomy. I take a picture of the house with my phone, being careful not to be spotted by the tenants, who might think I am preparing to rob the house, or that I’m a terrorist. When I’ve loitered in front of the house as long as it’s acceptable, I walk away. This is kind of emotional and bullshit. Luckily, I know what to do.
A spring in my step, I walk through the blue door of the chippy.
Vijay is not there. In his place, there is a younger man, clean-shaven and with gel in his hair.
I stare at him uncomprehendingly.
“Can I help you?” He asks.
“Is Vijay here?”
“Vijay who owns the shop.”
“I don’t know him. We bought this place six months ago.”
I remember to say thanks and goodbye before I stumble out. I light a cigarette and take a look around. A lot of the shops are closed. No wonder I found the street depressing; there’s no real activity. I must have come late. I look at my phone.
The Mediterranean café with the purple walls is now just a red shutter. Calabash is still there, but no one has bothered to put out the blackboard with the meal offers on the street. One of the two pound shops has closed too, and a dodgy-looking student bureau has popped up beside it. Sweet wrappers and cans of drink litter the street.
Suddenly, I hear a meow coming from the ground. It’s a friendly-looking tabby cat with green eyes, its fur the colour of autumn leaves, rubbing its side on my leg.
“Whisky!” I shout in surprise. He’s grown to a full-sized adult cat. I bow down to pet him. He lets me pick him up; I bury my face in his fur. Together, we enter his owner’s pound shop.
“Hello!” I send an enthusiastic greeting into the room. “Majid?”
Majid is sitting at the counter, watching the small television he keeps under it. Majid looks up; it takes a moment, but he recognises me, and gives me a weak smile.
“Oh,” he says, “Hi.”
I have never seen Majid like this. His eyes are red and streaked with broken capillaries; he is unshaven; a cloud of liquor sweat emanates from him.
He is shitfaced.
“Hey,” I say, more quietly. “How are you?”
“Yes, not good.”
He points at the window. The sign says in big letters, SHOP TO LET.
“You are going away?”
He motions at the outside. The sky is clogged, the street deserted of people. This doesn’t look like summer, or like Stratford.
It took a few years, but the ash cloud is hitting the ground. It’s happening, and it’s no volcano.
“He is also gone away.”
They have answered the call of the reflectors on the construction sites. By land, sea, and sky they have come. They look at us flee from under the beating shadow of their wings.
“It’s because of that thing.” He makes a swooping motion with his hand. “No one comes.”
“The new shopping centre?”
They’ve built labyrinthine halls where they rest their scaly bodies on tall piles of loot, cast glamours to make themselves charming.
“I am giving the shop away. I am moving to a rented room. With my wife. To a rented room,” He says. He takes his head in his hands.
He is weeping.
“I am so sorry,” I tell him, knowing it doesn’t change a thing. “I am so, so sorry.”
I put down Whisky and stroke him for the last time, quietly say farewell to Majid.
They’ve come to Stratford, and they’re taking over.
I run towards home. I can already see the headlines.