Cathi Unsworth: Dirty Old Town

December 2009

Read an exclusive extract from The Not Knowing (Serpent's Tail 2005), Cathi Unsworth's debut novel, in which she evokes Gallon Drunk's Camden as referred to in her Epiphany

The sunlight didn't penetrate the room he was in. Although the heat did, and it served to raise the sweetish stench in the dead air around him. Fastidious to the outside world, in here all was dust. Ghosts floating like motes on the ceiling.

The newspaper headlines returned him to memory.

Of his first visit to Camden Town, when he had tramped the streets all day. It had been in July of the year before, the height of the summer and just after he had made these quarters his permanent home. A time of tracking, of finding his bearings up there in Camden, the place he needed to be. What he had found was an intersection, between commerce and misery.

Idly, he fingered a nickel medallion he held in his left hand. It was a St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, a totem, a comfort, to its previous owner.

A virtually incoherent Glaswegian who he had encountered on that first foray.

St Christopher, who guards the path of the righteous.

At first, confused and upset, he hadn’t realised quite why he had taken it with him. But in time, it had come to him – it was a sign. A signpost on his journey.

The men who the saints had forgotten got an iron bed in the clamouring corridors of Temperance House, the alcoholic’s refuge that sat in the middle of Arlington Road like a squat, red brick toad. A Victorian philanthropist had founded the institution and it remained, the last of its kind in the capital, to shelter the ragged shadows of men that everyone pretended not to see as they went about their business of buying from the market. Their only living philanthropist these days was the patient landlady in the Irish pub on the corner, a few yards' staggering distance away on the corner of Inverness Street.

Which was where he had found himself at about six o’clock that day. The market was starting to pack up as he stopped on the corner of the little street where the fruit and veg stalls stood, wondering what to do next. There had been so much to take in and see already, that now his feet were aching and the heat of the day was sharpening his thirst. He needed to find a café or a pub, but which one? There were so many, the choice was bewildering.

The tramp had come staggering out of a doorway to make his decision for him. His grimy hands clutched around the butt of a roll-up and a near-empty can of Special Brew.

"Escewz me pal," he slurred loudly.

"Cshud yeez shparze uza few boab fer uzsch stea?"

He had been taken aback.

"I'm sorry mate, say that again"

"Issszched, cshud yeez shparze uzscha few boab fur uzsch stea, pal? Issch goonan run oot."

He tried to make sense of the pronouncement.

"I'm sorry, I can't understand what you're saying."

The man's face suddenly grew resigned and, for some reason, his next words came out crystal clear.

"Ach mon, nae one understands us. I'm a Camden Town drunk, eh."

He smiled at this, and thought, well here’s a kindred spirit then.

"Let me buy you a drink," he had said at once.

The tramp’s face broke into a wide and toothless grin. “Ach, yeez a gent,” he had proclaimed, leading the way down Inverness Street to the Hop Poles.

He had been most surprised by that pub. Of all the alehouses he had sampled in endless London town, this one most closely resembled those he had used as a teenager. The very old, hopeless winos occupied the lounge bar and the snug, in various stages of quiet decrepitude. But the saloon bar, where there was a pool table and a tiny stage for sporadic attempts at live music, was used by the rebel set.

And how rebellious they were – worshipping the same greasy gods as their Teddy Boy forefathers by the look of them. Boys with slicked-back hair and leather jackets, drape suits and loud shirts; girls with heavily styled hair and heavily made up faces, pencil skirts, stiletto heels. They obviously had control over the contents of the jukebox as Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash and Lee Hazlewood grunted and groaned, twanged and moaned their way through the smoky air. Which sat well with the old folks as well, gazing into their beers, their eyes misting over with memories of their youth, still burnished bright, even when the mundane details of the current week's events had already been dumped into the synaptic dustbin.

Two greasers playing pool in their dandified outfits looked up as they entered. They nudged each other and laughed, muttered something about another poor sucker.

He ignored them, stood tall.

"What you drinking?" he asked his new companion.

"Highland dew, eh," the man's eyes misted. "Ach, whisky, pal."

"Landlord, a pint of your finest bitter and a malt whisky for my friend," he said loudly.

He had always preferred the company of older, more alcohol-ravaged men anyway. It was easier to hide yourself in the company of those whom society had already written off.

He could hear the greasers sniggering again, the click of the cue against balls, Tom Jones singing from the jukebox, dreaming of the cotton fields of home.

They found a quiet corner, on the other side of the bar, in the Snug. The alcoholic, Glasgae Boab babbled his life story into a line of whiskies, enjoying the rare novelty unburdening himself to uncomplaining ears.
He pretended to listen, but all the while he was watching the greasers, prickles running up and down his spine. Eyes darting to the door, just in case the next person who walked in with a big oily quiff was the one he was looking for. Something told him this was the right sort of place…

Taken from The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth, Serpent’s Tail, 2005.

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