VI. Dark Places
When I had been in London a month, someone invited me to a dance party. It was my roommate’s friend. We had met only the week before, when he had come by to drop something off for David. People were always passing by our grimy house, on their way to or back or around from work, class, or another mysterious event. I was beginning to understand the way relationships were created in this frenetic place. It puzzled me, and I mulled it over in the moments when I was waiting for the red buses, which I took because the fare was cheaper than the tube. I would go to a party in Greenwich, where I would meet a man who would recommend a cafe on Whitechapel Road, where I'd strike up a conversation with the barista and be invited to a get-together in Hackney where, in between two girls wearing printed pants, I would suddenly bump into the very first man from Greenwich. People would appear in my life in great spurts of hospitality and excitement, and then vanish into the cityscape, never to be seen again. It was all very confusing. I finally settled on the words to describe it. I would murmur them sometimes under my breath, if I were confused: open transience. A tangible flow of parties and personalities and chance meetings was carrying me to some far off, fixed endpoint – but where?
On the day I met Finchy, he was an hour away from his 22nd birthday. At first, I was impressed by his hair, shaved short on the sides and pulled into a knot on top. It was the kind of fuck-you statement that was so abhorred by the older generation, so gleefully embraced in the young. Despite this, Finchy moved and spoke with a natural animation, waving his arms every minute to emphasize a point. We chatted about our favorite music artists, for a few minutes. He was delighted that I had been listening to Jamie xx's new album. He was a connoisseur, he declared, of East London’s many dingy clubs, where DJ's squinted over turn tables, and the music throbbed until the sun rose. It would be a sin, as he later texted me, to not experience "London's brilliant underground scene!!!!"
Because I had trusted Finchy immediately, I found myself sprinting for the last tube to Elephant and Castle one Saturday night. It was the hair, and the overuse of exclamations points. What a clash. Someone who used exclamations points with such abandon had to be a good person. And I needed to be around good, unrestrained people. I was afraid of being laughed at. I, with my bland upbringing, with the suburban house and the garden of weeds and the dishes neatly piled on the side... at fifteen, I had watched teenagers smoking at bus stops as if they were alien creatures. Now, I was smoking myself and wearing jeans with kneeholes that I had cut out myself and listening to music spun from turntable manipulators. House, techno, UK garage... I perused Sound Cloud for hours, created playlists, went to concerts in bars with names like Koko’s and Jager. I was trying to buy entry to an alternative culture that laid its heart at the foot beauty, music, art and fashion. It stirred something trembling and romantic in me, a part that had shivered in excitement when I arrived in the city, a part that had watched Finchy turn twenty-two in our cramped room in Stepney Green and danced a wild waltz with him in celebration.
South of London is not a comforting place past midnight for a young woman who hates dark, quiet alleyways. I picked my way past old posters taped on corrugated iron doors and dumpsters overflowing with rotting vegetables. Something rattled in a puddle nearby, and I shrieked. But then I saw Finchy’s grinning face, beckoning me over to a line that was forming by a discreet door. I ran to him. We waited, not really speaking, until we were granted entry into a hallway with dirty white walls that could have been in my own home. A man gave Finchy a languid nod as we crept further down the hallway, until we were in a small room with red walls.
Here, yes, it was here. The beat, the darkness, the air tasting of sweet liqueur. People danced with their eyes closed, even though it was dark already, abandoned to the ceaseless push of bass. Watching them was like peering in the windows of a stranger’s living room. Here, in the cocooned gloom, it was simple. Every thought driven out of your mind, because it was impossible to think when you were hypnotized. Oh, the relief! To shut out the clamor of this confusing world with more clamor, to throw off the need to define oneself as a person of character and originality - here, I was not watched but the watcher. I was anonymous. One of dancers must have felt my gaze and opened his eyes. He looked at me, smiled and slipped his body back into the rhythm.
Finchy and I found a spot, right next to an elevated wooden stage that a group had claimed for a dance floor. It was nice to look up, to sense their rustling somewhere above me as they danced. The music sounded so crisp, so clear. I began listening properly. The best thing about techno is that the repetitive 4/4 format attunes the ear to hear the nuances that would otherwise be lost in too much noise. The beat thuds on, unchanging, until it deviates into a delicate drop or a light cymbal tap, and suddenly a single moment is lovely.
So it went on for a few hours. Sometimes, when we got sweaty and tired, we'd weave through the hallways to a mesh door that spilled us into an alleyway. I gulped in the fresh air and the smell of cigarettes, and we joined the hordes of people sitting on wooden benches. Corsica shared the alleyway with a boisterous Latino club, whose inhabitants, too, were milling around. It was entertaining watching the two types of music-lovers collide, one so grunge, the other so vibrant. Beside us, an older man with stringy hair was speaking urgently to a pair of young lovers. Across us, another group conversed in sharp French. The round sounds rolled over me, and I marveled at my sheer incomprehensibility of them, not even a single word. It delighted to me sit in this stew of thrown-together people. The cold air was soothing on my clammy face.
"I was always the weird one in school, " Finchy said. "Weird music taste, weird personality."
"Do you ever get afraid of everything going wrong?" I asked. “Can you do this forever?”
Finchy dropped his gaze to his palms. "I'm always afraid. That's the problem."
The sky was lightening into a pale pink now. You could see the tiredness settling into the lines of people’s faces. I didn't like that. We went back inside.
On the tube home, I lay down on the blue seats and listened to another song off Jamie xx’s album. It wasn't an anthem for a nightclub, but something softer, gentler – a lullaby for late night rendezvous in the bedroom. "I go to loud places/to find someone to be quiet with..." Romy Madley Croft’s voice had never sounded sweeter. I thought about how dark places with loud music had been seductive for years. It must not have begun in the 80's, though it was during that vivid and uncertain time that this brand of culture had exploded. It must have begun earlier, decades of people gathering in dark, underground places, rebelling against the suffocation of their lives, seeking some kind of release to sooth their souls. The thought made me sad. Finchy, Corsica – I liked it all so much. Didn’t I know why?
It was 7am when I finally unlocked my front door and fell into an almost dreamless sleep - almost, except for the faint sense that someone I loved was weeping over me. But it never became corporeal. Only ever a sense.