Forbidden Things

My friend had recommended them, said they were… different. Everyone uses that word when they can’t find something good to say about music or other art, she’d said, but they really were different. Forbidden Things, they called themselves, apparently. I’d been intrigued by the over-the-top name and also the venue: the minuscule Ilion Bar in Hanway Street, tucked away behind the junction of Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road.

The London sky was the colour of weathered lead as I threaded my way among the crowds of shoppers – always dense and already swelling further in the weeks leading up to Christmas as autumn finally ceded the land to winter – and eventually turned into the little narrow thoroughfare leading off Oxford Street to the north. The tall, dirt-caked buildings on either side leaned in towards each other, almost closing off altogether the thin strip of ashen grey between them. Evening was falling fast yet the sky somehow refused to darken properly; as the natural light faded towards the west it was replaced by a leprous orange cast aimlessly upwards by the limitless city below.

I nodded a greeting to Vasile, the hulking Moldovan doorman, who nodded back as I passed into the barely-lit ground-floor passage that served as vestibule both to the Ilion upstairs and the tapas place in the basement. Climbing the two stories of narrow, steep and winding stairs, I took in the familiar scent of the bar itself, simultaneously repellent and enticing: stale beer, stale fag smoke (the ban seemingly never applied to the Ilion), the cloying perfume worn by the two redoubtable matriarchs who ran the place, the bodies and breath of the punters; all these mingled into a dense and somehow dizzying fug along with something I was always at a loss to name – a hint of a ghost of a scent that seemed to belong to no creature or object of this world.

Taking my customary place on a stool near the far corner from the bar, I sipped from my Budvar and waited for the show to begin. I looked around at the other punters present here tonight: an assortment of men and women of various ages, each of them oddly vacant-looking, with no two of them so much as talking to each other or even looking each other in the face while the strain of a heartsick crooner drifted around the little room from speakers whose best days were long behind them. Before long a door behind the tiny stage opened and a crewman began heaving audio equipment onto the stage and setting it up. I was still only on my second beer when the music from the CD player behind the bar was cut and three hooded figures shambled onto the stage and took their positions; the one to my left sat down to operate a sampler of some kind, the one on the right shouldered a Fender Jazz while the central figure produced a microphone from a hidden pocket.

It was impossible to tell the age, ethnicity or even sex of these three mysterious persons, so completely did their long, loose robes and cowls cover their bodies and faces. Someone flicked a switch that turned out almost all the lights in the bar and another that turned on a single dull reddish spotlight above the trio; I could now see that the robes were also repulsively tattered and filthy, as if worn continuously throughout a lifetime of wandering among lonely and hateful places.

My friend who had – well, recommended isn’t quite the right word, but told me about the act, let’s say – had described them to me as ‘industrial-grime’, which had seemed faintly ludicrous at the time but now made perfect sense as a grotesquely syncopated half-time beat lurched out of the speakers and ground and clattered around the room, setting my teeth on edge with its wildly rhythmic variations that were surely alien to any music made by healthy humans. It was soon joined by the bass guitar, rendered glaucous and queasy by some unheard-of distortion device, which danced madly and capriciously around the beat, seeming to fight it more than complement it. And then the third figure began its contribution to the performance: a thin, whining drone that was barely recognizable as a human voice.

And the words the voice formed were black and obscene secrets dredged from the sewers of the cosmos.

Oh yes, they were forbidden things indeed, that these three wove into a music that seeped out of this cramped space and flowed into the London night like an oily tide. I have no idea how long they played; time itself had fallen victim to the contagion pouring forth from the three performers, slowly and jerkily swaying as they wove their inhuman sounds into a delirious pathophony.

Finally, after a song which the vocalist had introduced as ‘Real London’, the music ceased. The three figures took a stiff and formal bow in the now shockingly silent room, turned around and left by the stage door with just as little ceremony as they had entered it. The was no applause or even a resumption of talking as there usually is after the cessation of a performance, and I glanced around the room, taking my eyes off the stage for the first time since the group had appeared on it. The Ilion was utterly deserted by clientele and staff alike.

As if in a dream, I stood up from my stool and stumbled idiotically towards the exit, making my way down the darkened staircase by feel and muscle memory more than sight, which was rendered virtually useless. Emerging from the main doorway of the building into Hanway Street, I looked up and saw no moon, no stars, nor even street lights, only the dull orange glare I’d noticed earlier, now roiling with cryptic intent and resonant with whispered insinuations. The buildings were all flat-faced, flat-roofed, and composed of decaying bricks, with lightless and cracked or empty windows. Of living humans there was no sign, only a multitude of furtive ghosts that darted hungrily this way and that without catching my eye.

Then I understood what it was the Forbidden Things had told me of, at last, and that this waste that stretched in all directions around me was indeed the real London.


2 Responses to “Forbidden Things”

  1. HMGövt (@hmgovt) Says:

    Baleful. Full of bale.

  2. routemasterflash Says:

    Bale out the wazoo, mate.

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