The cab at the top of the rank is a beige Escort, 80s registration. The driver, a black guy in a loose fitting shirt and sun glasses too big for his face, is sitting in the back listening to a Gecko Turner CD with the bass cranked up too far for the speakers. I nod through the window and sit in the front passenger seat.

The car reeks of palm oil and something I can’t quite place. The smell brings back the sick feeling that started with my non- existent breakfast and the early morning hangover realisation that I was back in London against my will and my better judgement. I put it to the back of my mind.

Sure, I didn’t want to be here, but if I was close to some kind of truth I had to find it, possess it, write it down, study it, pull it out of shape, stretch it, write it again until it fitted. That was the science: you started with a secret then you worried it until it became true. If the truth was there you found it in the end, like finding the punchline to a joke.

Holloway Road, Upper Street, The Angel, Old Street undergound, some back streets, blank faces in doorways, shuttered-up shop fronts, bagel bakeries, curry houses… back into traffic, turning into Whitechapel Road. We Pass the Blind Beggar, the Mosque on the right… History: A funeral cortege through Bethnal Green. It’s not a good day, a day full of rain and guys waiting for money nobody can afford… there used to be a cinema on that vacant lot – Scarface. Al Pacino, romance memories, movie gangsters, fantasies in the dark on summer afternoons collapsing into reality like flowers on a bamboo blade.

I get out of the car outside Stepney Green underground. London is a city of stations. Stepney Green, the Ocean Estate. Decay is everywhere, it’s the air they breathe and it stinks.

The Ocean begins on the eastern corner of the intersection of the Mile End Road and White Horse Lane, a wall of phantom grey concrete blocks ten levels high, with windows so small you can’t make them out, don’t realise there are windows there at all until you cross the street. Latticed metal fencing protects the street from them. It’s rusting: fifty years of keeping the dogs off the highway.

My father talks about the dogs, in the early hours when everything is still, in the monochrome moments when there are no jokes left, when the only important thing is to keep life running away from the east end, from the past, from poverty, from crime. That is his motivation: not to be like the dogs. And he never quite lives up to it. The dogs can conceptualise, the dogs are instinctive, the dogs are responsive, the dogs are reactionary — he too is all of those things and he feels what the dogs feel: comfort and warmth, pain and hunger, cold and fear, he knows the nights and the early mornings and he knows the city all of its secrets, its unmentionable odours and its unpublished skin. Years later he tells me, as he relaxes by the pool or gazes from the patio out across the bay, he imagines he can hear the dogs thinking.


Her hair is black, cut short like a boy’s. Soft rain on the shoulders of her jacket shimmers amber in the streetlight. Just for a few seconds the distance separating us diminishes. I see her face up close and sharp as if we are together in the same room with no glass mediating. Her eyes meet mine and there is a feeling of oneness between us. For a half breath of time I know her, really know her, and my consciousness of her knowledge of me is so intense that I feel naked.


I take a dive into the Global Lounge. It’s changed: used to be a spit and sawdust pit; now it’s gone all Continental bar, with video screens and an espresso machine.

I order a large Irish and it’s gone quicker than it takes to pay for. So I order another and take it to a table by the window. This one I approach with more leisure, sipping and smoking as I look out across the street at the Ocean. My mind goes back to New York and the last time I saw Tommy alive. Then a bit farther back than that, to when I first met him.

There’s something about Tommy, I remember thinking, that fights against his own gifts and talents: in a way it’s like this… thing, whatever it is, denies them completely. Oh sure, he has that magic intangible alright, that indefinable something that makes certain men out; but he also has the tragic flaw. It’s a kind of death wish and it has always been there, I guess. It’s in his eyes and in the muscles of his face, in his words, gestures, every nuance and each subtle movement. His success is his ruin. I remember going to the washroom and telling my reflection in the big mirror while I’m rinsing my hands: “It can’t ever become mine.”

As his writer my job should be easy; I could just let the scripts write themselves out of my perceptions of him, write his real character large, like they did with Hancock. He should be his own material. But he doesn’t want it that way.  Pretty soon I start to hate him for it, for the fear of what his search for “a new kind of comedy” might do to me and my career.

Enmity: there’s just no reasoning about it. If tragedy is the comic in slow motion then comedy is adversity speed-ed up. You can make comedy out of any human situation. Take any abomination: the holocaust, war, cancer. If you write out the solidity, the fear, the hate, if you distort the shadow you can make it funny. The public will laugh at the serious or the tragic if you invite them to; all you have to do is take away the fear.

But it’s in the hands of the writer, not the comedian. Tommy takes the comic too seriously, he becomes a freak, a grotesque.

Look, it’s like this: the public laughs at the contrast between the body and the shadow, at the difference between the character’s invented self and the actor’s psychological reality as it is perceived within the context of the character. When Tommy starts to play himself too closely, the comedy disappears.


Ruth is important. I push Tommy into a closet and try to get my mind back to the present, trying to figure it out, Nico the static boy speed-talking, words flailing out like chain-shot.

I Sift through the pieces of conversation I can make immediate sense of, leaving aside the misty for future analysis. Eventually I get the kid reduced down to a chill-dude-wear-a-pork-pie-hat image, reflecting the street history of his cultural stereotype. in reality he is a closely shaven head with a hood, a long black leather coat and a penchant for knives.

She’s at the centre of his life, that’s one sure thing. He calls her Aunt Ruth but he doesn’t know whose sister she is. He just goes there when he’s had too much of the cold air on his face, when he becomes too conscious of his own ricochet, when he doesn’t have a good enough reason not to go there.

The room she keeps empty just for him. He has his own key and she calls him Nicodemus and he doesn’t show that he minds answering to a cross-worshiper’s name. She’s always pleased to see him, any time, day or night, and she never asks questions she doesn’t know he’ll want to answer. She is sensitive to the secrets of youth, it’s her gift to him, a space in her life which is his, and there is nothing she expects in return but his company every now and then, a few words over sweet coffee or a glass of white rum, the gentle violence that warms her when his young breath commingles in her front room with her old treasures.

The night and the dogs always find them out. There are no secrets from them. Those caches they all try to keep hidden in the folds of their flesh or under the bed clothes, nestled snugly in with the unmentionable odours and the unpublished skin…

The kid told me about the loose floorboard in Aunt Ruth’s secret room, beneath the sheepskin rug.