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Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich

Cutty Sark figurehead.

Picture by Rachelandrew: Cutty Sark Figurehead

It’s hot work, witchcraft: the whirling dances, the steaming cauldrons, the flames of hellfire. Nannie’s covenwear is carefully layered, so that she can undress as the night goes on; first her dress comes off, then her petticoats, until finally she’s wearing nothing but her cutty sark. It doesn’t cover much; she’s reluctant to give it up, as the fabric is so cool and soft, but she’s grown in the last six months, one final burst of height and hips and breasts to tip her into adulthood.

The church roars with music and movement and light. A witch, mid-coven, can hear and see and smell so much, and a few of the participants notice a man outside, looking in through the windows; but staring men, like heat, are an occupational hazard of witchcraft, and besides, surely he must be watching in alarm rather than arousal? Coffins slam open and shut, the witches and warlocks spin; blood and bones clatter in the centre of the room; the devil himself takes momentary form and dissolves again, swirling on the edge of existence and playing his bagpipes in time to the witches’ dance. Outside the man’s horse bolts, the man himself draws closer, thirty feet, twenty, and Nannie can smell his drunkenness, even through smoke and sweat; but surely his approach is steeped in terror?

No; the witches spin and spin and suddenly the man’s right at the window. “Nice tits in the cutty sark!” he calls out. The music stops as he speaks; the church falls dark.

“That would be you he’s talking to, Nannie,” says Abigail into the silence.

Nannie’s the forgiving kind, but there are limits. She sighs, and walks to the window. “What was that?” she says. Her eyes are glowing. The man stares, then steps back and ducks behind a tree. “Did you want something?” she adds.

“I,” a voice comes from behind the tree. “No.”

“Then you shouldn’t,” and she swings herself over the windowsill, “pry at other people’s windows.” The horse hasn’t gone far; she summons it over, strokes it, and pats it on the rump, sending it running towards the man.

He grabs at the bridle, trembling, as it passes; at the same time, Nannie catches hold of the end of the horse’s tail. For a moment, nobody moves. “Go on,” she says, and snaps the tail free from the horse and throws it into the air. It twists and hangs in place. The man backs away, dragging his horse with him, breathing heavy panic, and is gone.

And that, Nannie thinks, is that.

But the man stops at another public house, and gets talking to Robert Burns, and in 1791, Tam O’Shanter is published.

“Nan,” Abigail says one afternoon, tossing a copy of the Edinburgh Magazine on the table. “You’re in the papers.”

Nannie picks it up and frowns. She can read, a little, but this? She turns a few pages, and looks at one of the pictures. “What do you mean?”

Abigail takes the magazine back and opens it, points at the page. “It’s a poem,” she says. “All about you. Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn, that while a lassie she had worn, in longitude tho’ sorely scanty, it was her best, and she was vauntie, it says.”

Nannie takes the magazine, and runs her finger along the lines. It’s slower than letting Abigail read it aloud, but yes: that’s what it says.

Maybe she should have chased after him, scared him till he fell over on the forest floor and wept. “But he was terrified.”

“He’s not the one that wrote it,” Abigail says. “He must have got drunk again and started talking. This is by little Robbie Burness, do you remember him? The ugly one down in Alloway? No, of course you wouldn’t, you’re too young.”

Nannie keeps reading. “He says,” she says, “we chased Tam O’Shanter off with an eldritch skreich and hollow.”

“Poets,” Abigail says, and shrugs.

Nannie shuts the magazine. It’s a busy time of year for witching, but she feels like she ought to do something; so she goes up to Edinburgh and finds Robert Burns and comes in through his window at night, and gives him a stern talking-to. (He makes a full and swift recovery.)

And that, she thinks again, is that.

For a while, it is. Then, in 1869, a Dumbarton shipmaker produces a neat little clipper ship, and on a whim he calls her the Cutty Sark.

Witches sleep a lot, once they reach a hundred or a hundred and twenty years old, so for a while nothing happens to the ship; but in 1872 Nannie wakes to news that the Cutty Sark is racing back from Shanghai with the year’s first shipment of tea. Victory will send her name ringing across England.

Nannie tuts, and flies out to to meet the ship. There’s a figurehead perched at its front, a grimacing figure with bare breasts, its arm outstretched, its hand clutching a horse’s tail: Nannie’s pretty sure it’s supposed to be her. She therefore gets a certain satisfaction from snapping off the ship’s rudder. By now, however, she knows better than to think that everything’s sorted out for good.

Sure enough, in 1944, Ivan Yefremov publishes a story about the Cutty Sark, and she has to give him the same sort of talking-to she gave Robert Burns. And fifty years later, she finds out that the ship itself has been refurbished and set up as a museum.

It’s not that she’s particularly angry. She was never the vindictive type, and nowadays she spends eight years out of every ten asleep, dedicating the other two to cream teas and flying really fast. But legends are like mice — duty compells you to keep them under control, even though you can’t get rid of them for good. So Nannie starts a fire, and falls asleep before the refurbishments can begin, with a petrol can tucked under her bed for the next time she wakes up.

Posted in Docklands Light Railway. Tagged with , .

Custom House

Croxley Green welcome sign.

Picture by Ewan-M: Custom House, Canning Town, E16

Custom House is eighteen storeys high. Its central courtyard houses the usual mix of trees and slightly confusing public art; there are frequent squirrels, occasional dogs. The flats are privately owned and, for the most part, affordable and inoffensively decorated. Their small balconies are filled with pot-plants, bicycles, chairs, toys, raggedy cardboard boxes, laundry. Neighbours smile at each other awkwardly in corridors.

Custom House has this one characteristic that distinguishes it from any other block of flats: those practices which become habitual within its walls can never be abandoned. You may do anything you like there, once, without risk; you may do it twice and still alter your behaviour; but do something three times and you have established it as invariable.

It’s Monday night and Anna is making pancakes. Her laptop is perched on top of the fridge, music playing loud, and she’s pulled her longest skirt over her pyjamas. As the pancakes reach completion she adds them to the stack in the oven. They’ll be ready just in time for the late news.

It’s Monday night and Adam and Melanie are fighting. Adam is yelling, Mel is staring at the table. This time the argument hinges on venetian blinds, and whether their slats are necessarily horizontal (Adam says no, Mel says yes).

It’s Monday night, and Karim has just got home from work. His housemates are out or asleep. He washes a rackful of dishes, then leans out of the window to smoke, and drops the stub onto the balcony below.

Elliot is arguing online; at the moment it’s men are portrayed unrealistically as well, but in ten minutes he’s due to switch to people would pay more attention to you if you didn’t attack them. Next door, Janet is listening to the radio while she works on her cross-stitch. On the other side, Dwight is jiggling a laser-pointer across the carpet to amuse his (illicit) cat. On the next storey up Chantelle and Jessica, drunk on experimental cocktails, are singing jingles from late-90s television advertisements as they lie on the floor of their living room. It is the third time they have done this, but not the last.

Tammy and Jack are sitting on their sofa while Jack flicks through the channels. When they go to bed, they will have perfectly pleasant sex. Jack will think a bit wistfully that it would be nice if Tammy would shave her legs and wear more colourful underwear. Tammy will wonder if Jack’s ever going to lose weight. It will be the two hundred and seventy-eighth time this has happened.

Nitta is crying. Each Monday, her parents take it in turns to read her stories; then to lead her back to bed whenever she gets up, and to tuck her in; then to sit next to her and make soothing noises; and finally to stand with their backs to the bedroom door, alternately ordering and begging her to lie down and close her eyes.

Dan and Tassie are watching a movie. In a little while, just before Spice President closes, they’ll order a curry. Spice President’s motorcyclists won’t deliver to Custom House, for fear they won’t be able to stop, but they’ll bring the food to the footpath outside and wait for Tassie to collect it. (Tassie is pretty sure that the footpath counts as part of the building, but she hasn’t said anything.)

You can move out of Custom House, as long as you’re decisive; as long as you follow through the first time you consider it, or the second. But Dwight and Janet and Tammy and Jack and Nitta’s parents and Melanie and Karim have all thought about it three times: searched rightmove, looked at the tube map, said things like “Islington’s nice, of course” or “I could move back in with mum for a couple of months”. It is no longer possible for them to leave.

Posted in Docklands Light Railway. Tagged with .


Croxley Green welcome sign.

Picture by Foshie: Welcome to Croxley Green

There are, Derrick calculates, four types of people: the malevolent, the oblivious, the neurotic and the amazing. To tell which category a person falls into, simply observe his or her behaviour at a zebra crossing.

(There’s only one zebra crossing in Croxley, down Watford Road by the garage; Derrick therefore has to wait a week after formulating his theory before he can bring it up in casual conversation.)

“So Evan,” he says when the opportunity finally arises, “is malevolent.”

It’s true that Evan is pleased when cars have to stop to let him pass. “I don’t think,” he says, “that actually counts as malevolent. And most of the drivers should be catching the bus anyway.”

“Whereas Martha,” Derrick continues, “is oblivious.” Martha barely notices the cars, and never considers them as autonomous entities.

“What, and you think they’re considering us as autonomous entities?” she says. “It’s traffic. It’s laws. That’s how it works. It’s the social contract, Derrick. Pay your taxes and obey the road rules.”

“And Carrie,” Derrick says. Carrie glances at him. “What,” she says. She hates Croxley’s single zebra crossing; walks past pretending she doesn’t need to get to the other side, then ducks across during a natural lull. She has a casual saunter that says “I’m totally walking up this way a bit further, don’t think about stopping for me,” and a confused frown and half-turn that says “I’m a bit lost and still making up my mind, carry on please,” both of which she deploys with expert judgement.

“You know that’s not normal, right?” Derrick says.

“It’s a type of normal,” she says. “One of four, someone told me.”

“Which brings us,” Derrick says, “to the fourth type: the amazing. More specifically, the ones with really big pogo sticks.”

“I don’t think you can call it a whole type,” Martha says, “if there’s only one of you.”

Derrick raises his eyebrows, then crosses the road in a single wide bound. Children poke heads from back windows of passing cars, astonished. “Give it another few years,” he calls back towards his friends on the opposite footpath. “There’ll be more.”

Evan opens his mouth to shout a reply, but Derrick’s already bouncing out of range, so he phones instead. “How about,” he says when Derrick answers (they see him bouncing one-handed ahead), “the ones who,” and he looks up to Martha and Carrie. “Snappy insult anyone?” he says.

“The ones who are massive wankers?” Martha says.

“The ones whose visions of the twenty-first century crystallised in 1986,” Carrie says, “but who can’t afford a jetpack.”

Evan frowns. “How about,” he says, “the ones who are about to get stuck in a tree,” but Derrick swerves and avoids poetic justice one more time.

Posted in Metropolitan Line. Tagged with , .


Crossharbour train and station. Sign still says London Arena.

Picture by Ewan M: Crossharbour station

For a while, the station is Crossharbour and London Arena; then someone demolishes the London Arena, and it’s simply Crossharbour. Later, after the harbour is drained, they rename it once more: Cross.

Living in a place called “Cross” is, Cabalero discovers, pretty awkward. Local maps and search results disappear under Abbs Cross and New Cross and King’s Cross and Brent Cross and West Cross. Journeyplanner frowns and asks for clarification. Taxi-drivers shrug.

For most of the residents, this is intensely annoying. But it gives Cabalero an idea.

“People tell me,” he says from behind a gloss-dark podium, “that they’ll pay for the films they really love. That they’ll support the bands they feel passionate about. That they want to know where their money’s going. That they’ve been bitten too often by trailers that promise the world, and movies that just deliver a string of meaningless explosions squeezed into a pair of tight-fitting trousers.”

He looks at the audience. They’re interested; they’re not sure where he’s going with this.

“These people tell me,” he says, “that I’m fighting a losing battle. These people tell me that some of their favourite shows aren’t even available on DVD. These people, ladies and gentlemen,” and he pulls aside the red curtain hanging to his left, “are pirates.” Behind the curtain an actor in a tangled-hedge beard brandishes a bloody cutlass, swigs from a bottle of rum, and kicks a parrot. The parrot shrieks and flies clumsily away.

“These people,” Cabalero continues, “are thieves.” He sweeps aside the curtain to the right, revealing a man in a black-and-white striped jumper, a sack over his shoulder brimming with other people’s precious objects, his foot stamping on the hair of a small weeping toddler.

“These people,” Cabalero says, shouts, “are killers. And what do they kill? No mere replaceable life: they kill careers, ideas, creativity, hope, those fleeting qualities that makes us human. And I, gentlemen,” and he dismisses the pirate and the thief with a gesture, “I can stop them.”

Some of the audience members are leaning forward in their seats, now. A screen descends slowly from the roof. “This,” Cabalero says, opening Firefox with the flick of a mouse, “is a browser window. And this,” and he clicks on a bookmark, “is a website that these art-killers use to steal. Movies, television, music, video games - they don’t care, they’ll take everything, and then they’ll post mean little reviews that make them feel good about themselves, spitting in the faces of the very people they’ve sinned against.”

This is it: the climax. His moment of triumph.

“We’ve tried,” Cabalero says, “technological solutions. We’ve tried fear. We’ve tried appealing to their better natures. Nothing’s worked. But this,” and he pauses, and the room is absolutely silent, “will.”

The lights dim. He clickes the mouse once more, and the image on the screen changes. “Presenting,” he says, “a new era in cinema. A new paradigm in music. A new dawn in civilisation. A solution to all your problems.”

The image on the screen is a mockup of a movie poster. A dark background; in the centre, three bright silhouetted figures. They’re fuzzy, seen through a mist. At the bottom of the poster, sharper-edged, is the word XVID in bright blue-glowing letters.

The poster fades, and another appears. A laughing white couple in the bottom left-hand corner reach up towards the top right, as if straining to reach the baby monkey that hangs there, clinging to a balloon. In the middle, cheerful red, sans-serif: AVI.

A third poster, browns and greens: a woman faces away from the camera, looking back over her shoulder and straight into the camera. She’s standing on the edge of a cliff, or a rooftop, and it’s windy, and her hair and her dress billow. Torrent, says the serifed script below her feet.

“If they can’t search for it,” Cabalero says, “they can’t find it. And if they can’t find it, they can’t steal it. And if they can’t steal it, ladies and gentlemen,” and the lights come up again, “they’ll have to pay for it.”

The applause is, of course, rapturous. After the presentation, Cabalero is surrounded by a hundred producers and directors and composers and marketers and lawyers, every one of them wanting to shake his hand and buy him expensive drinks. It’s half past eight in the morning before he trips his way into a taxi with three nineteen-year-olds, a final half-dozen glasses of champagne clutched to his chest. He mumbles his address to the driver and falls asleep.

The driver, of course, takes him to the wrong Cross, where he lurches into someone else’s house without realising and stands, confused, in the kitchen until the panicked residents knock him unconscious with a lampshade. But every day has its ups and downs, and at least he saved the recording industry.

Posted in Docklands Light Railway. Tagged with , .

Covent Garden

Covent Garden is crowded.

Picture by tom.arthur: Covent Garden


Covent Garden Station gets very busy on weekends and in the evening. It only takes a few minutes to walk from Leicester Square - why not alight there and follow the signposted route?


Alternatively, the walk from Charing Cross is only slightly longer. I know you’ve heard of Charing Cross, it was in that film with the bookshop.


Christ. Listen, just don’t get off at Covent Garden, all right?


You’ll have to wait a long time, you know. There’s only four lifts, and not a single escalator.


This staircase has 193 steps. Do not use except in case of emergency.


You did hear me, right? 193?


Do they not have maths where you’re from? 193 steps ≈ a fuckload.


The Covent Garden area is very crowded, and there are few public benches to sit on while you catch your breath.


The coffee in any given cafe will be expensive, and not very nice.


I wouldn’t bother with the church. It’s not one of the famous ones.


In the interest of health and hygeine, please do not feed the pigeons. You will only encourage them.


The buskers too.


You know you have to pay to get into the Transport Museum, right? All right. And you know there are several hundred free museums in London? No? All right, never mind, forget I mentioned it, stick to the wax models and the Eye and the drama students in zombie makeup. That’s what they’re there for.


You arranged to meet your friends “at Covent Garden”, didn’t you? Well, I hope you have international roaming.


You’re never going to be able to remember which side of the square you came in from.


Or find that pizza place your friend told you about.


Or find your way back to the station.


I’d probably want to come here too, if I lived in Glasgow or Osaka or Carshalton Beeches or Boston or whatever the fuck other sub-zone-three wasteland you’ve made your home in.


But one day we’re going to put a tunnel in, straight from Heathrow to Covent Garden and back. Maybe a moving walkway. Localise and streamline the menace. It’s kinder that way.


Kinder to us. Not to you.

Posted in Piccadilly Line. Tagged with , , , .

Colliers Wood

Colliers Wood sign with snow.

Picture by Bods: Snow-topped underground sign at Colliers Wood

Tom knows he’s grown, and it makes him nervous: but surely he’s got one more year left. He chops trees and splits wood with care, slower than everyone else, trying to quell the too-enthusiastic growth of his muscles. He gains a reputation for skiving, but he stays light.

And cold: when the collier arrives Tom strips off his outer layer of clothing, eager to empasise his narrow limbs. He gets no acknowledgement. The collier looks past him, then runs his scarred hands over one of the cords of wood, turns around to survey the space.

“This’ll do nicely,” he says.

Suddenly everyone’s moving. Tom and the other farmers’ sons begin to shift the wood from its stacks, bringing it to the edge of clearing. The collier’s men brush the dirt clean, scooping away twigs and leaves, dropping any stones in a pile. The collier leans against a tree and watches; then walks slowly around the edge of the clearing, dragging a stick behind him, inscribing a forty-foot-wide circle. Later, Tom knows, the collier’s men will take the stones they’ve been piling up and lay them out along the shallow line.

Tom and the others aren’t allowed inside the circle, so they haul in quartered logs from more distant corners of the forest. The collier’s men take the logs and stack them tightly, airless around a central chimney.

It takes days for the wood to be stacked. By the time it’s finished, the pile is towering above everyone, three times Tom’s height and broad with it. Dirt’s been laid down thick over the top of the logs, leaving an artificial hill with nothing to give away its real purpose except the vents at the bottom and the chimney at the top.

The collier’s men lie on the peak of the mound, dropping twigs and dry bracken down the chimney. The collier walks around the base, looking it over one last time, reaching out once or twice to pat the dirt. There’s a torch already lit, stuck in the ground, just at the edge of the circle; when the men have slid down the slope of the mound, one of them (short, with a red beard) picks it up.

“Ready?” red-beard says.

The collier nods. Red-beard runs up the side, slowing as he reaches the crest, then he leans in the chimney, holding the torch before him. Silence. A curl of smoke, then another. Red-beard slides down, and the long burning begins.

On that first day, the smoke comes fat and grey, different to how Tom remembers it. Inside the mound, the wood is shrinking, and twice the collier calls on a grey-haired man, shorter than Tom, to stamp the dirt down and keep the smouldering wood under control. If there’s space for flames to break out beneath the earth, all their work will be reduced to mere ash.

On the second day, the smoke is thinner. The collier leaves some of the watching to his men; walks around the forest, comes into the village. Tom rushes out to offer him a piece of cheese.

On the fifth day Tom times his visit perfectly, emerging from the trees just as the collier stands up from his tent and frowns. Tom can’t read the smoke, but he can read the collier’s face—it’s time for another stamp-down, and the small grey-haired man is asleep, too drunk to wake.

“I can do it,” Tom says, and his voice sounds so loud in the quiet wood. “I did it last year twice, and three times the year before. I don’t know if you remember, you said it was nicely done.” Nobody remembers, he thinks, as soon as he’s said it. “I’m still pretty small,” he adds.

You need to be small and light for the stamping, though strong enough to put some heft into it as well. Sometimes the mound’s earth cladding collapses, and sends the stamper into the incipient charcoal below; and that means death, or disfigurement, unless you’re light enough to be dangled to safety on the end of a rope. Tom’s sure he can still do it. He’s sure.

The collier looks him up and down, then nods. “Rope’s over there,” he says, tilting his chin towards the far side of the clearing. Tom knows, of course—he’s watched five of this year’s stamp-downs from the edge of the clearing—but he doesn’t let on. He just walks around to the rope, and loops it around his waist.

It trails over a high branch, and one of the collier’s men, a big grimacing friend of red-beard, takes the other end. “Off you go then,” he says.

Tom wants to run straight up the warm mound, or spiral pell-mell around the bottom in joy. Instead he climbs up slowly, heading towards the chimney. The smoke (a strange pink-grey, this morning) comes up into his face in a rush of heat. He waits for big-grimace to pull the rope taut, then he starts stamping.

It takes a while, but he’s jubilant for every moment: the smoke, the mystery, the forest around him, the ring of stones centred on him and the fire. He stamps and stamps, and has to be told to stop, though his feet are sore and his legs are tired.

He comes back on day six, but his timing’s off; then on day seven he’s lucky again, and on day eight a spotty blond boy comes for him in the village, summoning him away. He’s been asked for. Not just tolerated, but asked for!

On the twelfth night, the smoke looks different even to Tom’s untrained eyes. He can’t sleep, of course, so he creeps out and finds the collier alone, circling the mound and watching.

“Almost done,” he says to Tom. “Tomorrow some time, probably.”

“Does it need stamping down again?” Tom says. “I don’t mind if there’s nobody to hold the rope.” The dirt’s never collapsed beneath him; he’s never felt safer than he does on the mound.

“No,” the collier says, “not yet. Maybe in the morning.”

“So you’ll all be leaving soon? Where are you going?” The villagers will wait at least ten days before digging the dirt clear, waiting for the newly-formed charcoal to cool; but the collier never waits.

The collier shrugs. “There’s a village up north. The wood’s not as good there, just pine.”

Tom’s surprised; he’d never thought that some wood might be worse. “Not much pine here,” he says.

“No,” the collier says. “It’s a good place, this one.”

Now’s the moment, Tom thinks; he’s imagined this converation so many times. “I, I’d like to see some of the other places, though,” he says. “Does pine burn differently?”

“It’s testy, pine,” the collier says. “Unreliable. You have to watch it.”

Silence again. “Do the different types of wood all make different types of smoke?”

The collier nods. “Different smells, different colours.”

It’s now or never, Tom thinks. He breathes deeply, then coughs.

“I wish my boy was as interested as you are,” the collier says, looking at him. “I’m training him up, of course. You’ve seen him around, he’s the one I sent to the village to fetch you that time.”

Oh. The boy: younger than him, not old enough yet for stamping down the dirt, but not far off it. Blond. Spotty.

“Still,” the collier says, “time to start teaching him what’s what. Give it another ten years and he’ll be the one camping out all night and waiting for the smoke to change. And I’ll have somewhere decent to sleep.”

Tom should, he think, be grateful; the collier has saved him the humiliation of asking to learn, and being refused.

“Should be done before sunset, by my reckoning,” the collier says, and squints at the mound again.

He’s right; in fact it’s not long past noon when he calls on his men to block the air vents and the chimney, and smother the slow burn. Early enough that the group leaves that same day. Tom stays inside.

At night, for the twelve nights before it’s safe to clear away the dirt, he lies on the mound and looks up, and then shuts his eyes to the lingering smell of smoke.

Posted in Northern Line. Tagged with , , , .