Double-Decker Ballad

by Mersiha Bruncevic

Sleepless Nights is a collection of half-true memory vignettes written by Elizabeth Hardwick. It is also a book that I have been carrying around with me everywhere lately, returning to it almost ritualistically. On the first page, Hardwick writes: ‘If only we knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.’ I keep the book with me to reread this and other parts, all of which deal with remembering scattered fragments and trying to make something of it. Hardwick calls it being ‘borne backward to the bricks and stuffs’ of the past.

I’ve been revisiting those words about the lost things of memory even more since my first post-pandemic visit to London earlier this month. The trip released many random recollections that had seemingly been lost in time. Mostly, it’s little things from when I first moved to London as a teen, a few years before starting university — when I was staying with relatives in Marylebone, before eventually moving out on my own.

One thing that keeps coming back is the number 98 bus, my main means of transportation at the time. The 98 took me to my weekend job in Covent Garden. And, more importantly, it took me to and from the club that me and my friends went to on Monday nights at a place called The End.

That club-night was known for many things, but it was especially known for always ending with a devotional blasting of the Smiths’ ‘There is a light that never goes out’. The kids would dance their hearts out to the lyrics, before stumbling home through the alley outside. It was sort of romantic. I would take the 98 back to Church Street, walk past Alfies Antique Market and go straight to bed in the early hours of yet another drunken Tuesday morning.

It’s odd that it’s not the parties that I think of now, but the double-decker rides home down empty streets, floating on the same level as the street lights. It all seems so distant. ‘The years do not seem real: the numbers are merely words, five years, ten years, forty. They might be nouns — house, street, garage,’ as Hardwick puts it.

During my recent visit to London, I went to meet an old friend at the Fitzroy Tavern. We’ve known each other since working on a short film years ago. At the time, he was 19 years old and I was 22. He was a skater kid who’d been cast as the lead in a story I had written. We became friends and met regularly for existential talks over drinks at the Hawley Arms in Camden. These days, he is a brilliant photographer and director who has streamlined his innate existentialism into a unique visual expression. I couldn’t wait to hear more about his work. But by the time we had both ordered our non-alcoholic drinks at the pub, we realised that things had changed.

He told me that he had quit drinking for health reasons. During the pandemic he’d had a close call with a very rare, serious illness. He was recovering and focusing on a clean lifestyle. I had also made similar clean lifestyle changes a while ago, but for less easily defined reasons. Mine had something to do with a broken heart. Needless to say, the evening started at the deep-end of the catching up pool.

To deflect, we made jokes about how bad fake beer tastes. He paid for our drinks because (apparently?) he owed me for some taxi ride I had paid for once when he’d lost his shoes. A fact that I had forgotten. After that overture, we didn’t talk about philosophy and existential stuff like we used to. We talked about health and love and changing our foolhardy ways. A far more real conversation.

At one point, my friend went to take a phone call. His assistant was freaking out over a colour-grade. Left to my own devices, I thought about how much had changed since our distant evenings at the Hawley Arms. And I thought about Camden, where I went to live after leaving Marylebone.

There used to be a café there, on Delancey Street. The clientele was mostly faux-scruffy, artsy locals. The décor was very 1960s French café, almost too much so. I used to hang out there with this guy, he was in his mid-thirties and I was still a teen. He would smoke Marlboro lights and tell me about medieval cooking, his motorcycles and mowing the lawn at his country house. He treated me like a curiosity; I probably had a crush on him.

In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick writes: ‘She will have an apartment, a lover, will take a few drugs, will listen to the phonograph, buy clothes, and some things will happen. Perhaps it will be good — or at least what she likes.’ I wondered about these words. I wondered what I liked, but came to no conclusion.

It would be easy to say it was easier back then — when our healths and hearts were still untouched. When the possibility of death and heartbreak was only a romantic punchline in a Smiths song. I’m just not sure it’s true. Somehow, things packed a heavier punch then — even though there was much less at stake.

Walking back to my hotel after saying goodbye to my friend, another loose memory came back to me. It was something that happened during those early years in London. Heading home, late one night, somewhere south of the river the double-decker broke down. My friends and I had to get off. We were drunk, cold and stranded. Everyone was too broke for a taxi and all other buses seemed to have vanished. To keep warm, we decided to race each other. I don’t remember who won. But I remember us running across Blackfriars bridge in predawn darkness, breathless and shout-singing lyrics to songs that made us happy.