It is about half past eleven, and I am smoking a goodnight cigarette on the porch. For some reason, this part of London affords much in the way of street theatre at night. Or maybe it is the promise of it, such as the way the look and layout of Earl’s Court promises great seediness and debauchery (although it never delivers). Here, though, things do happen.
There was the woman singing an evangelical hymn who stopped to have a chat. The woman with the cutest dog in the world. The Deliveroo guy smoking the strongest spliff I had ever smelled.
It is all heightened by the tracks opposite, which carry both freight and passenger trains, allowing one to meditate on the transience of both human and other cargo, and feel as though one is in a Tennessee Williams play, or something. In other words, it is a good place for atmospheric brooding, and for a sense of possibilities.
Anyway, I am halfway through my cig and I hear a “BANG-flap-flap-flap-flap”, and see a very swanky Mercedes S-Class slowing down and pulling into the kerb on the other side of the road.
Well, what would you do? I suppose there are some of you who would say “none of my business”, stub out the fag, and go back inside. Others would say this is too much like the beginning of that Nineties film (or was it late Eighties?) whose name I can’t remember, but involves a nice yuppie type who gets involved in an increasingly nightmarish spiral of misfortune because he sticks his nose in at the wrong time. That, though, is precisely what the doctor ordered, as far as I’m concerned, so I flick the ember off the rollie, put down my glass and stroll over to the car.
Yes, it has an impressively flat tyre. I am surprised, frankly. I thought Mercedes car tyres simply didn’t do that, and besides, — Road is hardly a warzone, and people don’t even chuck bottles into the street. The driver and another man have got out and are contemplating the tyre. The driver goes to the boot and pulls out a jack that looks as though it would have trouble lifting up a Dinky Toy version of the Mercedes, and a wheelwrench that looks as though it could, just about, break a wine glass if you gave it some welly.
At this point I become really, really worried that the driver is going to start using the jack to lift the wheel off the ground before using the wrench. This is a very, very bad idea, because what you are meant to do is use the fact that the wheel is fixed to the ground to gain greater purchase on the nuts fixing it to the axle. So at this point I break my silence, and volunteer to try and shift the wheel before he starts using the jack. (I should point out that it is also raining a bit, and I am not wearing a coat. I am that hard.)
I’m handed the wrench and start having a go. This wrench is not only feeble, its handle is not perpendicular to the business end, so it’s even more useless than it has to be. And the nuts are stuck on fast, as if welded. Because I have the best boots on for the job (see Down and Out, passim), I try kicking the handle, but the wrench just bounces out of the socket, and clangs to the pavement.
By this point I have started making conversation with the driver and the passenger, who he says is his brother. The accent is… well, let’s just say it’s exotic, and contains the thrilling promise of adventure.
The driver is extremely grateful for my help, even though I have done nothing helpful, and as he waits for his back-up we talk. He expresses mild surprise that a writer knows about changing car wheels, but I assure him I am surprisingly well-rounded for a person of my profession. I bring him a cup of black tea, two sugars. He talks about his now war-torn home, his ethical position (“I will not kill. I will not steal”). He says he is delighted to see that there are still gentlemen such as me around, and we swap phone numbers, because he says if I ever need any help with something, he will see what he can do. “I am very broad-minded,” he adds.
I cannot begin to tell you how much these words move me. OK, he won’t kill or steal, but then I don’t want anyone killed or anything stolen. But I imagine that were he to turn up at a door or two I could think of with a meaningful expression and a wrench rather more impressive than the one he has, then I imagine that certain areas of my life would become smoothed over rather rapidly. He wouldn’t even have to do anything. Sometimes you just have to stand there with A Look.
We part with handshakes. I think of Androcles and the Lion. Or is it Goodfellas?
This article appears in the 14 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game