Hermann had bought into the Denizen off-plan, an iconic cascade in the heart of the City of Old London Town, built in the something-or-other vernacular. The super-glossy brochure promised James Bond in the luxury, bespoke cinema. Plus a play room! The most exciting rumour was of top-notch escort agencies operating a 24-hour service in the block. Mutti had said: ‘Don’t be silly! Think of the service charges.’ Mutti, always canny when it came to property, thanks to a frugal post-war background, preferred bullion investment and disapproved of Hermann’s move, which had been provoked by a desire to improve Sino-German business relations. The Denizen was a Chinese enclave (thanks to what turned out to be a porky promise of a British passport in return for purchasing an apartment, and ambassadorial status for a penthouse, with the owner addressed as ‘Excellency’ by Denizen staff, all decommissioned beefeaters from the historic Tower of London.) A proud banner flew ‘atop’ — in the preferred language of the developer — the building, displaying its latest slogan: Sold Down the River.
Mutti, sceptical, had snorted. ‘It will turn out to be a ghost building.’ Its post code had particularly bad feng shui. The souls of murdered policemen stalked the demolished corridors of the previous site, a consequence of the unreported Fann Street massacre of 1958. The glorious German super-rockets of 1944 had used the site’s co-ordinates for a bullseye. Historically, the location was known for rancid, diseased brothels and abattoirs. Mutti: ‘Not much has changed. Beware, Hermann, because of the nearby meat market the area is haunted by the spirits of dead animals from the Chinese zodiac.’
Mutti sniggered. ‘No wonder it cost you an arm and a leg!’ Hermann refused to see the joke, even after Mutti had explained in terms that a child of two could understand. Mutti sighed. ‘I can see you need to develop the famous British sense of humour.’
Despite Mutti’s warnings, initial signs were promising. Hermann collected the keys from a fawning agent, who admired his left-hand drive, top-of-the-range Merc, driven over that morning and already festooned with parking tickets. Fawning agent (female) offered her cellphone number in case of any hitches, adding meaningfully that there wouldn’t be.
A Banksy mural gave the fabulous Beech Street tunnel artistic tone. A spectacular Jeff Koons turd lay in the street, next to an art installation of an old telephone kiosk (designed, according to its blue plaque, by the brother of a notorious Kray brothers’ associate. Or, mused Hermann, shouldn’t that be ‘an associate of the notorious Krays’?). In the kiosk a twitching performance artist pretended to be a junkie. Hermann hadn’t realised his room would be north-facing and overlooking this street parade and the proletariat blocks opposite. He was sure he had bought a south-facing apartment and two bedrooms rather than the sunless studio he seemed to have.
Taking the elevator straight up from the underground carpark, he had bypassed reception, which came as a surprise when he went back down. It more resembled a street market with stalls serving dim sum and noodles to a scrum of Chinese. Hermann supposed it was a pop-up thing. He was not yet aware of the rumour that the so-called Chinese residents were in fact the equivalent to film-extras, hired in exchange for free food, to make it appear the building was inhabited because very few owners had picked up their keys, before or after the murders.
Outside, the artist junkies seemed to have gone for lunch. The proletariat estate was patrolled by security men in the process of arresting a small dog. Hermann wondered if this was another artwork. Was it conceivable that the estate was entirely inhabited by artists pretending to be proletariat; otherwise why would the block be decorated with garish, tattered banners that seemed either challenging or offensive? Hermann was disorientated. Was it about edge? No one had pointed out that he would live facing this querulous local artists’ community. Had he wanted that he would have bought in Shoreditch. He had looked there first, taking Mutti on a German Wings mini-break. Mutti had berated the clerk in the Church’s shoe store in the City’s Cheapside upon discovering that their women’s brogue was made not in England but imported from Italy. Hermann, coveting Paraboots (French and hard to find, hoping Mutti would treat) had to be content with a pair of Clark’s desert boots. Bangers and mash for lunch in a bespoke olde worlde pub, and pints of foaming bitter ale — if such a thing could be found. They had to make do with adjectivally-challenged wine — ‘generous, round, full’ — incompetent service, rabbit and tarragon terrine, three scallops, the ubiquitous pork belly — the pulled, spiritual descendent of old City slaughterhouses — and something Mutti struggled to recognise as fish. Ninety-five quid, thanks very much, with optional service added at twelve-and-a-half percent. That said, the strength of the euro reduced the bill to pence. Hermann in an unexpectedly light-hearted mood after Mutti had coughed up, said in heavy quotation marks — the vocal equivalent to the finger curl — ‘We’re such basic bitches.’ Mutti was captivated by Shoreditch, mistaking all the bearded young men for the minor European royalty of her childhood (from the neck up at least). But too many short trousers, she complained. Lederhosen only, she admonished, and permissible only under certain circumstances (Wandervogel) otherwise no shorts. Hermann was confused and a little thrilled by Google references to Wandervogel and homosexuality. Leather shorts. Onkel Toms Kabin. Lederhosen with a flap at the back as well as the front. Hermann took note of Friedlander: ‘Only he who is a good pederast can be a perfect pedagogue.’ Try that on the children in the park! he thought. Most looked dangerous and feral, more like frightening tiny adults than kids.
The Denizen was already showing signs of its age and discontent. It was — what? — scarcely open a couple of months and residents — known as ‘the few’, an echo on the part of the building’s publicists to the historic Battle of Britain — were already moving out. The immediate environs were not what Hermann had been led to expect. However much he was in love with the common people he didn’t want to live in their actual vicinity. No one had said anything about a school, within the estate agent’s proverbial ‘stone’s throw’. Children! Dickensian urchins running wild! Community! The horror! No mention of sunless canyons. The improvised canteen in reception turned out to be just that. There was nowhere locally anyone wished to eat and residents were scared to go out after a young couple from Shijiazhuang (who had come there because they liked the quality of the high pollution) had been machete-murdered and dismembered by an Uber driver who buried their parts on Queenhithe beach, beneath the smoking balcony of the new hotel development.
Hermann returned to the secure underground car park to find written in indelible ink on the driving window of his Kompressor: C*** Parking. Which was unfair: he was square in the bay. Unless it was noun rather than adjective and referred to him. More Jeff Koons turds lay in a symmetrical arrangement on the concrete floor. Art and property went hand in hand as any fool knew: time to turn a quick profit. Hermann dialled the fawning agent only to be told that prices had in fact dropped; a temporary hiccup. The Chinese were turning out to be unreliable buyers, being fussy, loud and superstitious, so the building’s agents were setting up an office in Pyongyang, subsequent to Britain (formally rebranded as Brexit, copyright and patent pending) opening diplomatic relations with North Career, as the only trade option left to it.
The cinema was closed. A handwritten sheet advertised not James Bond but a ‘curated season’ of old English horror movies by LoveFilm. The playroom consisted of a broken ping-pong table, with graffiti scratched on: Germans go home. With nothing to do, Hermann went to his apartment and pictured himself ending his days on a chain gang on the Rhine-Yangtze canal. Five ways not to get a fat belly. Concentration shot. The inside of what passed for his head reduced to brain flickers, electrical faults and poor wiring, his reduced personality a product of conferences and meetings, bullet points and bad air miles, patched together by a combination of Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren Bacall. The world had reached such a pretty pass that toilet paper now came with user instructions and refugees turned up in Nike and Adidas.
Hermann suspected travel, space and place were just a diorama and architects worked to an identical open plan because once inside another glass Euroturret he found the same everywhere. Architects had regressed to being slaves to wiring conduits, where the construction industry had advanced to being considerate and caring. Hermann’s secret wish — the desire he dared not voice — was a loving relationship with a considerate builder.
Every street in Western Europe was regularly dug up with gleeful abandon. Mutti, delirious, feared Muslim insurgents. ‘Like that Mexican drugs/wetback tunnel in Breaking Bad.’ As Hermann had soothed Mutti’s fevered brow, he thought: They never show the wiring in those clean simulations of what the finished building will look like, or the crap of cardboard storage boxes cluttering the windows.
Mutti had texted to point out that Fann Street was the most excavated road in the whole of London, for nefarious reasons, she said, with dark stories of the swimming pool on the proletariat estate being used out of hours as a way of keeping down the local population.
Hermann looked at his Junkers automatic 6060-5 watch. The Face of Fu Manchu was due to start downstairs in five minutes. He resolved to go. People to meet . . .