Chapter 1: You Got To Be A Crazy Speed Freak To Survive Down Here (Part 1)
By: Jack Dempsey
Beat up old guitar strung across his back, Danny the Demon raced into the Underground. He took four lightning strides past the old wrinkled newspaper seller with the bulbous purple nose and reached the top of the old wooden escalator. He grabbed at the handrail and leapt three at a time down the rickety moving steps. His grubby blond hair flew behind him like a horse’s mane. Matted and greasy, it hadn’t been washed for months. Neither had his body. Neither had his jeans, t-shirt or sneakers. Danny was a scumbag busker and he was late for his pitch.
Anyone going down the Leicester Square stairs at five past five on that steamy London summer’s afternoon would have seen, if they’d been quick enough to catch his face, two great big mad red-rimmed eyes. His cheeks were rosy, like a young girl. An enormous crazy grin revealed a glorious row of rotten teeth like a mouth full of walnuts. When pop stars get famous, the first thing they have done is their teeth. They can’t sing anymore but they have a cute smile.
The old escalator rattled down into the depths. At the bottom Danny jumped off, careered around and weaved in and out of a few peak-hour punters and bolted for the ticket barriers. No time now to slacken the pace. Three yards to the barrier, three giant leaps and a stylish hurdle and that’s it, inside. Danny the Demon doesn’t buy tube tickets! He shot a glance ahead and leapt for the barriers. The vision there stopped him like a bolt from heaven.
She was tall, and thin. Up and down striped tights emphasized her long spindly legs. The insides of her thighs didn’t meet. Two blonde braids framed her face, a fringe at the top and a turquoise scarf around her neck. Arms swung loosely, back erect. A microsecond before Danny left the floor on his epic leap across the barrier, every muscle in his body seized up. The last thing Danny noticed were little bows at the end of each plait of her hair. His leading foot was too low. He hit the barrier with a great thud, somersaulted through the air on to his back and landed with a loud “clat” on top of his guitar. His eyes were still staring but the grin was gone. The slim Scandinavian sorceress smiled serenely and sauntered by.
“Fuck” said Danny, “me shoulder’s broken.” He tried to get up but the guitar strap was still round his neck, choking him when he moved. “Oh no, me guitar.” He scrambled to his feet, checked his instrument and gave the strings a good twang. It sounded like a two fisted punch onto a piano – discord. Still works okay, thought Danny. Danny Botchanelly, the demon underground busker.
“Hey mon, you godda ticket?” The ticket collector had seen the whole thing. He had a growl in his voice, a playful frown dancing between his eyebrows and a twinkle in his eye. Danny groaned as the pain came back into his shoulder. He waved a dismissive arm towards the voice and shuffled off towards the escalator clutching his injury and his out of tune guitar. He was late for his pitch. He didn’t want to lose his playing spot.
The Piccadilly Line escalator at Leicester Square is about the longest and the oldest in the West End. Not one of your sleek efficient chromium plated jobs from Oxford Circus, not this one. With its ancient wooden steps and an old and tatty canvas covered handrail, it jerks and rattles, rumbling along, carrying the punters down into the holes for their trains, down to run the gauntlet of the beggars and the muggers, the dossers and the junkies; and the buskers. Danny took his place alongside the rest of the parrots perched along the edge of the old escalator.
In public, generally speaking, English people are well mannered. They queue up. They queue up for buses, fish and chips, and the cinema. They queue up because its what their mothers taught them as children. In a civilized society it’s the right thing to do. Recently two things have been proven. The first is that God is English. The second is that if there were more than one of Him, He’d be queuing up too. And so, like God, there they are, the English, out in all weathers, queuing up. They queue up because they know they’ll get their turn at the front. And they queue up because it’s fair. And so, if the London Regional Transport Underground Pedestrian Movement Planners decide that it’s more efficient having some of the people standing to one side on an escalator, and some of the people walking down the other side they only have to put up a sign saying Stand On The Right and it will be obeyed A tribute to English co-operation and efficiency.
Danny perched with the rest of the parrots. Normally he would have zoomed from top to bottom barring blockages from people like Japanese tourists taking pictures of the wall posters, shell-shocked commuters or that planner’s nightmare, the spaced out druggie. But today none of these things stopped Danny from zooming. It was his shoulder, it was beginning to throb. He squeezed it and twisted it round a bit.
“Hey Danny!” Danny jerked around towards the other escalator going up and picked out the madly waving arms of Saxophone George. “Just got moved by the cops. The pitch is empty.”
“Okay,” shouted Danny, “see you tonight.” He’d better hurry before someone else got to there first. Using anarchic solidarity, buskers get an hour each to play but if whoever is playing gets moved along by the police or inspectors, and the playing spot becomes empty, the spot is declared free for the next person who turns up and the list starts again. Buskers call it their pitch, their chance to impress the punters. At least that’s how it works at Leicester Square. The buskers’ mafia at Green Park have a different system. He tried to urge his way down the crowded escalator but it was no good. It was packed solid. It seemed interminably slow and the growing pain in his shoulder was beginning to irritate him.
It seemed like six months later that the steps began to level out near the bottom. People jostled for position and Danny elbowed his way through. He jumped across the row of vicious looking metal spikes collecting rubbish at the bottom of the escalator. Okay, now a fifty-yard sprint to the pitch. Five yards on he turned sharply into the tunnel and became aware of two things in quick succession. A dark figure wearing an American football shirt with the number 28 stamped across the chest and then a sharp pain as the skateboard smashed into his ankle. Danny was on his back again. Number 28 stood rock solid. The trebly disco sound was just audible from his headphones as he leaned over to help Danny up.
“Sorry!” he shouted over the top of the music in his ears and sailed away on his wheels. Danny collapsed back to the floor and leaned against the tunnel wall. His guitar was in two bits. The pain welled up in his eyes. After a minute he picked himself up and the two pieces of his guitar and slowly hobbled the rest of the way to the pitch. It was still empty. He examined the guitar. Yamaha jumbos are the best busking guitars in the world because of one vital feature – volume. A loud-mouthed busker with a Jumbo going full flight in a tube tunnel can raise the dead. But now Danny’s old Jumbo had just died, decapitated by a roller-skating footballer. Tragic.
Carefully putting the remains of the guitar against the curved walls of the tunnel, he wondered what to do. Go home? Stay? Why stay? No guitar. Why go? No money.
Slowly he squatted down on the floor, back against the wall, his knees under his chin. His shoulders were hunched and his back was bent. He massaged his shoulder and the other hand touched his injured ankle. His head bowed and his hands moved up to his temples. The footsteps of the people in the tunnel were a million miles away and Danny the Demon began to stare a hole in his sneakers.