Can you hear me, little brother? That sound, the whirr of the road, does it ever stop, do you think? The loping wolf-whistle of a siren is moving along the carriageway, a quarter of a mile or so from where I am currently, which is beyond Hangar Lane, back away from the road, winding through a low-slung network of MOT test centres, tyre garages and sign printers. I’m already off course (of course), but I’m on my way, and you and I both know that’s something. Four and a half hours. Should be plenty of time, ha ha. A narrow alleyway opens onto a footbridge spanning the angled concrete banks of the Brent, part of a tight, little landscape of spindly trees and bare strips of grass, litter everywhere, scattered and piled up like the road has washed it up on a strong current. The road is like a river, certainly a more recognisable torrent than the ankle-slop of the Brent, and the sound of it never stops, it just grinds on – grey noise, the sound of asphalt and fumes, especially pronounced on this grey day, the sky reflecting an ocean of concrete. Not long now until day sharpens into night and the dull orange halo of the city rises above the streets, all of it nothing more than weather and time and traffic, the hum that seeps into my head each night as I try to sleep and try to think and try not to think. I stop on a stretch of the towpath beside the Union Canal, popping open a can of lager, which I keep concealed in the small, black carrier bag that the man in the shop wrapped it in. Concealed from what, I don’t know, from the time of day, I suppose, and from the passers-by who don’t drink, or don’t like to drink too much, or who certainly don’t stand around drinking on the towpath. Just a drink though, isn’t it, just the one. I watch three earthmovers root around in bricks and twisted iron on the opposite side of the canal, the metal-on-metal groan harmonising with the road, somewhere off to my right. A man angles a glance at me as he passes, a nervous glance that makes me walk quickly on along the towpath. Three hours left, how did that happen? I’m coming brother, I swear! I walk past more space cleared for apartment blocks, dropping my empty can onto a clutch of litter bunched up against a fence – one more can’t hurt – and follow the canal as it swings back towards the road and its noise. Up ahead a small, roundish woman in a lime-green and neon-pink shell-suit is powerwalking, a cropped bob flicking her rosy cheeks as she shuffles along, almost like a wind-up doll. Something about her reminds me of mum, her hurried fifteen minutes out walking the dogs, us behind her, dragging our feet and poking about with sticks, writing our names in the mud, which is where mine has stayed. Sorry, keep it light. Have you seen her recently? How is she? I hope you don’t mind me asking. When the woman reaches the bridge where the canal crosses the road she pauses for a few seconds before spinning around and hustling back past me in the direction she came from, directing a knowing nod my way, something I find more comforting than the earlier man’s nervous stare, perhaps because the woman seems unworried – about me, but also about herself. It seems a nice state to be in on this sad, litter-strewn strip of the canal in the slack tide of the working day, when the only worry worse than what other people might think about you being here, now, is what you might think about it. It might be this nagging fear that keeps me walking, past the big Tesco near Neasden station, which is where, checking my watch, I begin to worry about the time, knowing I need to pick up the pace. Or maybe it was before this, actually, on the estate next to the Tesco, abandoned shopping trolleys bunched up at the bottom of stairwells like ants streaming out of a nest, where a thought grew in my mind about the danger of detours, even though there can’t not be detours, because you can’t always be alongside the road. It’s the lurk of it that gets to me, the tinnitus of being nearby every day, living and working, because you can never stop hearing it, which means you can barely stop listening, and in this sense it is a constant reminder, a homing signal. All this gets my heart beating along at a rapid pace, so I stop for a smoke to take the edge off. Just a quick break, little bro, don’t worry! Would we hear it even if we left, do you think? If we somehow ended up living on a remote island you’d have the sea, more powerful than any river, and I suppose wherever you go there would be something. But can anything be as endless, as inescapable of this, which is not really one sound but a blanket of noise stitched and matted together from roars and hiss; rumbles, sirens, horns; endless movements, movements built from movement, working their way from the road and through side streets, past the pebbledash semis, up through the tangle of bridges and flyovers at Staples Corner, across the acres of car parks, industrial units, the big block of flats at Brent Cross that is mid-demolition (more noise, more movement, of sound, of people). My feet are aching and my head is beginning to throb, and I admit I don’t know if this is wise, this confrontation with the road and with you. Are you there? Can you hear what I am saying? Does mum know about this? I don’t know what she’d say, but I hope she knows. It feels better that she would. It’s a mess but it needs sorting out. On tiptoes I peer vertically downwards from a footbridge, lights flashing by below. He left us as well, you know. Of course you know. It’s dark now, which only makes everything louder, as if headlights have a sound, and who knows, maybe they do when they number as many and move as fast as they do here, and I start to slow down, start to think that the last thing I really need to do is to keep walking, because if I do maybe I’ll never work anything out, and the thoughts will pile up, thoughts which, like the headlights, have their own sound, and which, like the litter, linger in every corner and on every concrete riverbank, and which, like the endless jet-roar hum of the road, never stop.
Suddenly, a loud screech. On the opposite carriageway a vehicle, a motorhome, is spinning, dragging itself hard across the tarmac. It completes one full turn before sideswiping the central barrier and coming to a swaying halt.
There’s a moment, the road quietened to a dull vibration, which might be as quiet as it ever gets. Never nothing. And then, somehow avoided by the approaching traffic, the motorhome pulls away, as if the driver, invisible in the darkness the whole time, had stopped to check the map before speeding onwards to whatever more important thing awaits.
I keep walking towards you, half an hour later now than I need to be, more even. Am I walking fast enough? Am I deliberately not walking fast enough? I think of what I said to you once, after I’d left, that nothing happened, that I didn’t do anything. I see now what an insult that was, as if nothing is ever nothing and absence is an alibi. As I’m thinking about this, panicking about it, my pulse up again, the road enters a tunnel and the path narrows. Too narrow for the headlit roar and warm air that prickle my skin as I enter. The noise rises and the lights blaze. The tunnel closes in. My throat tightens. I just didn’t see why we had to be the adults.
I exit the tunnel into the night and the road feels reinvented, for a second at least. I stop. The air feels fresh here, down at the bottom of the steep, brambled canyon into which this six-lane stretch of the road sinks, and it makes me think about what we can get used to. I inhale a good, deep throatful. I think of the motorhome driver, and earlier, up alongside the canal, the rosy-cheeked power-walker and her unknowable day.
And brother, I’m sorry. Because it has happened again, this nothing. I’m here but you’ve left. Long gone by now, I expect. All I can do is curse myself and drift onto a bus going in the opposite direction of the one I should have caught hours ago.
Paul Tucker lives in South East London. As well as writing fiction, he has also written about arts and culture for publications including The Quietus and The Economist, and worked from time to time in an editorial capacity for Five Dials. In September 2023 he will join the Prose Fiction MA at UEA. He plays in the band Thee Alcoholics and tweets via @pauljtucker.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.