Inky didn’t like the stir we had created in the last village but he was clearly having a gas and his dark eyes said ‘juicy’. I, still airsick and blurry, thought the celebrity-hungry parade had been ghastly. Although, paradoxically, the mildly hostile folk show had been more welcoming than the stock-yellow speculators’ semi-rustic jail we saw over Surrey, now everywhere urbanising.
The smoke-fired surging spoke-wheeled Austin roadster and us both had been lost for five minutes fully, which momentarily suited all parties fine – the seasoned sedentary farm hands as much bewildered by this spectacle as we.
Why Inky belly-flopped into Croydon aerodrome one hour before some flavour of the month’s return-home party I couldn’t know; but the drama of his plump drunk form precariously balanced on the running board and bearing down the procession route – scaffold and bunting caught in tow – was certainly not lost on the crowd.
Thankfully my temporary hideout beneath the glove box protected my blank reputation from the press and law. Drifting off, it struck me this whole journey was probably more for adrenaline than getting anywhere – although remarkably we actually had a destination. Ploughed into the dusty world where lawns, gateposts and cattle troughs divide.
The petrol fug had me coming up for air. Inky was aging and breaking a sweat with just a few small movements soaked in hot summer sun. I lit a cigar and sucked on the sickly afternoon air. This land bursting with meadow flowers, manure and dirt. Mounting a fresh incline, acrid coal joined the chorus. We slowed at a village green.
“Where are we?” nodded Inky to a young farmhand. “Streatham,” the mouth and nose and straw replied. “Where have we come from?” It wasn’t clear who was more lost here. “Thornton Heath.” “What’s down there?” Youth and roadside grew weary. “Tooting.” Shifting into gear – “I like your style!”
Our silver-spun wheels singing again on the loose chip ground. Our best map – the boy – left behind with his years and livestock in our piston seconds’ burnt arise. Clods burst the sloughs and dense earth again and against this soft-sprung ride daydreaming. If the racecourse wasn’t near here I wasn’t sure what good churning these afternoon pastures would do.
“Why don’t you ever say much Welly?” I could hear almost nothing he said over the growl of the engine. “I didn’t choose these roads you know,” he continued over a pothole three feet wide. “There’s no signs, War Office you know.” But it had always been his strategy to follow the crowd – the busy road knows. “Not so kind to foreigners here.”
I motioned for a bar and the browned box-fresh relic pulled over. “Drink!” Pity me the valet of an Irish eccentric. The bar was dingy, he was right – its lost hours and hostile eyes outnumbering the drinkers. Doubtful they’d understand me or the six counties’ number one horse trainer. I washed my hands and asked for water, then ordered something dark, gloopy and scarcely potable. The drink tasted sharp with a gasoline aftertaste, or was that from my clothes?
Inky rested behind the wheel, his motionless legs and midriff blending into the mahogany and iridium speed dials. The vehicle bled sweet petrol onto the paused plant pot scene which would go on outside that pub forever. I lit another cigar.
We’d been nearly twenty minutes on the road, no more. Another lurch and Inky shifted gear, first down, and we sped up a hill, then up, and we ploughed down into another valley. His specialism made horses unnaturally fast but his inflated body retained the slow grace of a herbivore. Hands firm but heart in palsied control of our velocity.
Past Streatham church, shaded salesmen looked up from their cold evening meal. The light was coming right at us awkwardly now, as we throttled up the next slow-curved incline. I remonstrated with Inky hoping he would turn but he said the sun had no future. Two thirds into the seductive bottle – which turned out cognac – his grip had loosened and control of the roadster improved.
“At least I believe in something,” he told the blurred plane trees along the bank. “One day these roads will be more than local stone.” I looked at our cross section, where to each side horse and hand-drawn cargoes rubbed industrially along, fighting not to root back into the ground. “More vehicles, signage. It would be safer too.”
Steadily rumbling now, I felt pity for this avenue, where on each side plane trees grew more mangled from the chancing blow of a vehicle or driving wit less erudite than Inky’s. Our speed was fluent with the rolling tides of hill-crest industry. These field-born works and chemistries, like the remaining pasture, destined to be housed and locked in lease forever.
Still no signs, but the villa gates guarding urns and spiritual neglect suggested Clapham. A musical fair materialised on the plains, wild and revelsome, before disappearing mysteriously like the participants’ clothes.
We roared louder past the Sisters’ Pond, as unsure as any local how to escape looping, becoming everyman. Left, merging, I ignored the crimson call box, as real traffic – all gleaming curved machines – lifted us for an instant, then disappeared. “The races are this way.” But an artic lorry passing was all I could hear.
Italian spun and we were here for midnight. All the world’s tailoring dressed up for a big fright to make us great again. The first Dome-shaped wonder of the new millennium infused with the sour aroma of wet bricks and River Thames.
“Hey Chesil,” said Journo Dave – known as Canus (pronounced anus) – lost in the soon-to-be rising towers where time literally begins. We were cold, dark and ready to rain, finding our feet in a few minutes’ windswept recovery from the broken-down Jubilee Line.
So Canus’ gross hug was actually welcome, despite his trademark nylon and thigh squeezing enthusiasm. “Yeltsin’s resigned,” he whispered, echoing the PA systems primed and ready to belch multicoloured melodies out over this grey peninsula.
I lit a cigarette to let the wind and present blow away. “The creep,” I nodded. “You ready?” “Well Sydney’s allegedly gone wild,” he replied. “The future’s now.” Aye, and the whole bunch of them were willing dreamers – from editor, to politico, to scum-soaked mollusc of Greenwich way.
One kilometre round and whoever gave this dome its powers could build their riches in the next century out of fairy dust – with or without Peter Gabriel’s fanfare. It was written in every lamppost, yellow bench and square inch of tarmac spread out and optimistically sprouted from this poison gas wasteland ‘crying out for redevelopment’.
It was the end of the world alright but tonight we were going to watch it from the beginning. Jazz-hand dazzlers were gifting lanyards beneath the jaded eyes of wizened media ‘handlers’ – themselves never resting in this new age of militarised knowing.
Fortunately my job-to-mortgage itch ratio was poised to rub its way back into midnight rail tunnel non-existence – also known as bartending – so I had nothing to lose. “I’m here to interview Tony Blair,” I declared.
No response – ash hit the tiled carpet. These folks were either wise, and could see what was coming, or had been here all too often before. Meanwhile this tensile death trap screamed all around me for some hard years coming – body scanners, loafers and beer-bashed bars.
Ten moments’ more awkward silence and then it was warmth at last and some final airport security – our silky hearts skipping once again. Floor lamps, nosebags and vibrating flora – the new era of electric ambiance had arrived and it was spatial like debutante squares and river walks too big, too millennial, and too unconcerned.
“Darling, take a seat past this evening’s ‘host of technical flaws’, just left of the urinals decorated with summer fruits.” We were sweating in the fug of winter – it was 27° Celsius, or higher, down to lights, jet heating and endemic optimism.
Still standing, then leaning, on a gantry-turned-viewing-platform for mobile phone calls, I looked out over the moist empty floor and failed faecal matter of nightclubs to come. Balancing on heels I realised my feet were in the fun palace – demountable and interstitial – a dreamland for 1960s brothel creepers.
At the nearby press bar, dinner was being served from a floating tray. There were prawns humming ‘things can only get better’ and celeriac risotto celebratory. London and my outfit could have done without the splodges.
Fearing I may have picked up a millennium bug, my mind and guts temporarily unified. There’s a strategy for standing lonely at events like these but my élan was perishing, so I took my seat next to Cobwebs Busby and Greased Pluto Rock, who smelt of piccante cheese.
“Ladies and gentleman, let the new millennium begin.” It was a clarion call for the press gallery to start smiling – spirited clipping, smarting clapping, making here and there forever sonorous. My eyes glazed over with impossibilities, walking on latte’d water, breathing resurrected Indian air.
“Love Britain and yourself,” sang Tatlin-style gantries and new meridian warblers invoking Greenwich’s old billets and lime enclosures – now connecting star wizards and commerce. Elsewhere the Docklands Light Railway sighed to a halt, but inside we had ambient spray-back – flamenco, whirling eels and spiritual bankers.
“It’s all spin really,” Cobwebs artfully denied. As the Millennium Dome Show writhed onwards our collective eyes progressively gathered on one courageous grinning man gagging for a new dawn. And then it happened: 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-Happy New Year!
The next moments stretched on for eternity. The century of emotion-sucking attention-feeding had arrived, and our generation was gasping, farting. Stationary and cheering amid a laser show with two days until paying customers would arrive.
I saw the future school children, their chewing gum and the McDonald’s hot sauce squeezy bottle surprise. Down from Northern cobbled streets to the river land where political legacies gradually die. I was walking down the cinema, down the Wetherspoons, down the aisle.
“You’re welcome Chesil,” beamed Canus brightly, his hand on my thigh. “Thank fuck, you’ve rescued me,” I happily replied. Goodbye Cobwebs and those acrid smiles. Faster past the armed chaos of a drink-less bar, stumbling confusion and night-time goodbyes – we were out.
Out now on the webbed beach, dawn waves rolling in a million cash-won new smiles. The tube’s all broken still, but cars and buses arrive, mingling cleaners and dignitaries without welcome, taxis endlessly creeping.
Tony’s helicopter waves goodbye and he looks straight at me: “Nowhere else is doing anything like it and it promises to be the most fantastic day out in the world.” In my mind I start to cry.
But Canus is nearby skipping stones out to the electron point towers, Trinity Buoy Wharf and Bugsby’s Marsh. Imagining my death beneath a flatbed, I start to journalise: “Let’s begin editing history.” Then a moment later Canus replies: “I think I just peed on the Meridian Line.” New partners done with dreaming, ready for work in our twenty-first century lives.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. So many schools each day in one place cut from their restrictive habitat. And I guess it will be PC ‘Dozy Declan’ who gets the blame again – such is the praise I receive for listening and talking slowly.
The first reports came in about a quarter past ten. Canterbury Tales gone wild. An elderly coach driver – still wired from driving a hen party overnight – blew his gasket at a second-year group out of Orpington High.
It turns out two hours singing ‘our bus driver’s a bum sniffer’ just isn’t that funny. The poor old gentleman lashed out with a fire extinguisher which was already two years past its use-by date.
As his weapon’s impotence dawned on the students, two of the bigger boys – whose love of violence clearly outweighed any desire to bunk the day – rugby tackled the driver to the sticky floor.
A hospital outpatient – scrounging for a bus fare to Dover – discovered the poor sod bound and pulverised at the top of Dane John Mound an hour later. But by then, of course, the damage had already been done.
It was now twelve noon and taking stock of the situation I created an emergency field station close to the epicentre of the outbreak, inside the third floor tea rooms at Debenhams.
While admittedly calm and comforting, my nerve centre was also within striding distance of the marauding juvenile horde and its temporary stockade under Christ Church Gate. This would be a shrewd location, I decided, should I be forced to personally intervene to contain the disaster.
While I was loath to accept it, my greatest concern remained my precise whereabouts at the time of the outbreak. Now my superiors have been remarkably understanding over the years but admitting to chairing an over-65s chess tournament would surely raise some eyebrows.
And of course I had already been in hot water for the whole ‘Sudoku while on duty’ affair. There really is no persuading these commissioners such regular cerebral pursuits should be a prerequisite of active duty.
“Excuse me officer,” a very familiar shop assistant exclaimed, “some violent brats have taken over the perfume counter and taken it upon themselves to create a ‘plume of fumes’ as they are calling it. Some of our regular customers are feeling quite intimidated.”
“Cynthia, never you fear,” I replied leaning back on my chair and rubbing my ears, “Kent Constabulary have everything in order.”
“I beg your pardon Declan but that is clearly not the case. If you will not personally attend to the matter I will simply dial the emergency services myself and request someone who shall,” said Cynthia – who surely knew by now I was the only officer on duty for ten miles.
“Madam,” I responded calmly, “can you not see that we are strategising? You wouldn’t want us to go bungling in there – with no understanding of this revolt’s motives or cause – and make complete fools of ourselves, would you? Now Cynthia would you kindly bring me another teacake?”
I’d never seen such a glare, but thankfully within seconds she was gone. Dealing with civilians is yet another cross I have to bear.
Finally back to the task at hand. Clearly the now twenty or so school groups represented some kind of toxic mix. But what precise ingredients were to blame for this anarchic outbreak?
Greenwich Boys was a good school and so too was Stepney High – my glossy intelligence briefing prepared by The Sunday Times made that clear. So was it a confluence with the notorious Ilford Grammar which had unlocked this torment?
Or perhaps it was the combined fury of three girls’ schools and co-educational sixth forms – Martlesham, Redbridge and Bexhill – that had opened the gates.
My troubles deepened when PC ‘Jason New Shoes’ arrived. I’d hoped the traffic around Ashford would have delayed his arrival for hours. “Sir, sir,” he called out, threatening to embarrass me, “it’s really kicking off down there. Don’t you reckon we should be out there policing?”
It was time for a deep sigh. “I would like to remind you, PC Jason, that that is exactly what those monsters out there would expect us to do.” He stared back with a look of shock or surprise – a real rookie.
“Right now, New Shoes” – I said it slowly – “we are the only two police officers within a ten mile radius, are we not? And what would happen should we be – dare I say it – taken out?” I had no interest in waiting for his response.
“I propose we concentrate our efforts on an investigation so we can make sure this sort of thing never happens again.” I thought this would shut him up and for a moment it worked.
But as my words of wisdom finally sunk in he asked, “So where do we begin?”
“We wait for them to make their first move.” Silence at last.
Then Cynthia returned cakeless: “They’ve taken over the cathedral!”